Casimir Stone
March 29, 2022

Last week was Metaverse Fashion Week in Decentraland, as some 70 clothing brands — if you can call ‘digital wearables’ clothing — competed for the legendary sartorial tastes of the degen community. On the plus side, some designers argue, the blockchain will one day allow you to try on clothes with your own body shape without having to leave your home. The only downside being, Bezos already solved that particular problem, and no one has this body shape:

So, as much as I’d like to provide you with a Gossip-Girl-esque teardown of all 70 digital wearable lines, I fear I’d find it to be a repetitive, redundant exercise. I’d rather devote my energy to figuring out just why the hell web3 is so damn ugly in the first place.

We’ve more or less made our bones by taking cheap shots at the prevailing aesthetic of NFTs and web3 at large — a cross between stoner notebook doodles, pre-2000s video game graphics, and softcore DeviantArt hentai. Today, I wanted to take some time to dive a little deeper into what the web3 aesthetic actually is and unpack the implications of what could be a generation-defining vibe.

The aesthetics of web3 appear to be primarily derived from vaporwave, a microgenre of music from the early ’10s. It was initially a meme, circulating on indie music distribution platforms and imageboards, with visuals and samples hearkening back to the ’02 Macintosh Plus’ era of the Internet. And vaporwave collages of out-of-date operating systems, antiquated 3D graphics, and marble statues are, indeed, ugly. 

That’s also, it turns out, kind of the whole point. Vaporwave basically emerged as a memetic critique of capitalism, as evinced by its Marxist spinoff genre, Laborwave. Of course, memes evolve, become co-opted, and lose coherent meaning (as evinced by the inevitable alt-right inversion, Faschwave). But the basic intent behind the initial movement seemed to be highlighting the hollowness of consumerist culture in the late ’80s to early ’00s, through exaggerated reuse of their lifeless corporate art style.

Then — because it turns out a lot of vaporwave music is actually kinda good — it got serious coverage in a series of niche outlets and became a bit of a subculture in and of itself. At which point, it wound up in the hands of Justin Bieber / Ed Sheeran types, who’ve made careers out of draining trends dry for mass consumption potential. And, by the ’20s, the irreverent brand references, retro anime imagery, and Nickelodeon slime purples had become the preferred vibe of the extremely online — only now without any of the inherent irony left. 

Enter web3. The initial results of a Google Image search for ‘metaverse’ could easily be vaporwave memes lampooning corporations for appropriating their aesthetic, if they weren’t, unironically, actually just corporations appropriating their aesthetic. 

Some major NFT collections, such as Dreamloops, take explicit cues from the vapor distroids, too. But, by and large, the PFP projects defining the NFT ‘look’ — Bored Apes, Lazy Lions, CryptoPunks — are more indebted to the inorganic branding vaporwave exists to mock.

The ‘clip art sheen’ of these projects can be attributed to their generative nature, YouTuber Solar Sands argues, in a video accurately titled, ‘Why are NFTs so Ugly?‘ When you’re specifically designing artwork as a series of interchangeable attributes to be mixed and matched by an algorithm, the results run the risk of being glossy focus-grouped mascots at best, uncanny valley nightmare fuel at worst. 

(Our own foray into the wild world of algorithmically generated profile pictures falls squarely into the latter category.)

So, what, then, are the wider implications of the ugliest cultural mania this side of  Troll dolls? After all, this aesthetic has been cosigned by billionaires, art galleries, and pop stars. Witch house feminists, alt-right trolls, and mid-30s tech bros alike are opting to present as cheap, lifeless cartoon characters. And even if web3 somehow glows up in the next few years, this current iteration will surely be embraced — or, at least, wistfully chaffed — by subcultures and microgenres for years to come.

Well, I’d argue that ‘objective’ aesthetic pleasantry and generation-defining vibes by no means go hand in hand. In fact, they may be mutually exclusive. Look no further than the leisure suits of the ’70s, neon of the ’80s, wide leg jeans of the ’90s, velour of the aughts, etc. While there are timeless trends in every era just waiting to be revived by the jawn-tiest of future generations (read: the forthcoming comeback of indie sleaze) they tend to be confined to countercultures. Like vaporwave, sometimes these niches catch the attention of the popular culture and become assimilated into it. But, for a vibe to go mainstream, it must be alchemically loud, unique, and devoid enough of character to be ripped off ad nauseam. In other words, it must be ugly. 

As our own El Prof succinctly put it, ‘generating stuff is easy, generating quality is hard’. And, since mass consumption means generating mass quantities, it’s no wonder that, the more popular our culture becomes, the less pretty it gets. This was true long before said generating was done by computers, and it’ll only get truer now. Besides, cultural consensus aside, there’s no such thing as ‘objective’ in aesthetics. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and (far more important to these web3 ‘artists’) the law of large numbers points, on average, to success. They have, can, and will continue to strike gold, at the small cost of littering the metaverse with future vaporwave fodder. 

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