When Decentraland launched in 2017, the digital world's developers sold land parcels for about $20 apiece.
In the following years, the Decentraland virtual community grew but remained a small and relatively obscure part of the internet — until the NFT boom hit. Now, a handful of parcels in the digital world can sell for anywhere from $6,000 to more than $100,000.
"I have to pinch myself at the moment because it's really come so fast," said Sam Hamilton, the head of community and events for the Decentraland Foundation, the nonprofit organization that oversees the digital world.
Much like Second Life, Decentraland is an online world that gives users a place to create an avatar, interact with other users and participate in everything from concerts and art shows to building houses on their digital lots. Friends from around the world can gather for events and share a sense of community, even if they aren't physically together.
One of the first such virtual worlds, Second Life, hit 1 million monthly users in 2013, and it still has hundreds of thousands of users. Since then, other digital platforms, such as Roblox, Minecraft and Fortnite, have emerged as digital spaces that offer near-real-life experiences — which venture capitalist Matthew Ball has labeled the "Metaverse." A virtual concert held in Fortnite in April 2020 by the rapper Travis Scott peaked at more than 12.3 million concurrent viewers.
But Decentraland offers a different experience. Most everything in Decentraland is an NFT, from its virtual plots of land to the art on the walls in the virtual galleries. Ownership also gives users a say in how the virtual world operates.
NFTs, short for "non-fungible tokens," are a type of digital certificate of authenticity that uses blockchain technology, creating a secure way to track who owns a digital asset. And while they have been around for years, NFTs are suddenly the hot new thing inspiring a record-setting $69 million piece of art auctioned by Christie's and a rush on NFT-connected NBA highlights.
The boom has boosted Decentraland, with prices on its digital land skyrocketing. At the beginning of the year, Decentraland averaged about 1,500 daily active users. In March, it hit 10,000.
"The underlying philosophies of Decentraland is for the people to take back control of the internet and decide in which directions it goes in," Hamilton said.
"The way I see it personally, it's the next generation of social platform," he added. "We're kind of all living in a virtual world already, just the [user interface] is very bad. We're looking at two-dimensional screens."
It's that combination of NFT-fueled decentralization and an immersive online world that has convinced some users that the platform could become a destination. Jill Swartz, known online as CryptoYuna, is planning an all-female art show on Saturday, the first of its kind in Decentraland.
"This has forever changed my art path. This is where I've found my biggest community," Swartz said.
"Just that whole world opens up. Once you start getting in there and on the platforms and knowing the community, you just start learning more and more and more and exploring," she added.
For the show, the Decentraland foundation built out a virtual skate park that will feature art from a U.K.-based art group, the Graffiti Kings. It'll be available for use during the art show, which has grown to fill multiple gallery spaces in Decentraland.
Darren Cullen, the founder of the Graffiti Kings, and Swartz are confident that the art show will establish a precedent and a basis for other shows like it.
"This space will blow up," Cullen said. "It's like record stores being everywhere and now there's no record stores because of MP3s, and I think it's going to be the same for art galleries. They're going to go down and down and down like record stores because everyone's creating these artworks online via NFTs."
Hamilton said he predicts similar success for Decentraland. He said he's fielding interest from companies and musicians who want to find a place in the digital world.
"I always felt like when we pulled the trigger, the public would get the narrative and we would really see that this is something really special," he said. "I always thought that we could be as big as the big tech companies now if we do everything right."