Episode 40: A Simple Idea for a Complex Metaverse

Daniel Liebeskind joins the Keep Connected podcast to talk about bringing Burning Man online, the metaverse, and the power of IRL connections.

Daniel Liebeskind is the co-founder and CEO of Topia, a virtual gathering platform that helps people create a social experience in the metaverse. In 2020, Topia was one of the co-hosts of the first-ever virtual Burning Man, a “vibey” virtual vacation and spiritual retreat with over 20,000 attendees. Daniel and David sit down to discuss the profound impact of IRL connections, the challenges of online-only interactions, and how Meetup events in the metaverse can bridge that gap. The conversation touches on everything from the link between wizardry and coding to the lack of serendipity on Zoom.

Ranked as one of the top 25 CEO podcasts on Feedspot, Keep Connected with Meetup CEO David Siegel is a podcast about the power of community. For more details on other episodes, visit Keep Connected on the Meetup Community Matters blog.
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Show Notes

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In this episode, we are talking to Daniel Liebeskind. He is the Cofounder and CEO of Topia, a virtual gathering platform that helps to create a social experience in the metaverse. We are going to learn a lot from Daniel. Here we go.

Welcome, Daniel.

David, it’s a pleasure to be here. Thanks for having me.

You might ask, who is this Daniel? As our readers know, Meetup has always been about in-person until the pandemic. Virtual platforms are not going away anytime soon. They can truly drive real community. We are talking to Daniel Liebeskind, an expert in virtual communities and the Founder of Topia, a virtual community platform. Let’s start a little bit with an overview of virtual communities. Tell us some of the benefits and challenges in virtual communities overall. I want to spend time talking about Topia and you. Go from there.

You probably have similar feelings on this but one of the things about a virtual community that’s interesting is that access to that community is expanded. In person, one of the challenges is you’re geographically and even socioeconomically constrained to those that live nearby and can afford whatever the ticket cost is. Something like Burning Man, for example, has a gigantic community theoretically of people all over the world. The ethos is that they want to spread the principles all over the world but only 70,000 people a year can be at the in-person event. It is incredibly expensive.

How expensive is it? I’ve heard that there are multimillionaires that will go to Burning Man and sit at these high-end glamping experiences. The clothing isn’t that expensive there from what I hear. It’s a pretty penny.

Even the clothing, people spend a fortune on their outfits, costumes, and those sorts of things. The ticket itself is $500. You have to bring all your food, water, and a tent and travel there. It’s in the middle of the desert. All in, it will be something like $1,500 to go. That’s not that accessible to most people. Having a hybrid event where there are people in-person that are part of the in-person community, being able to have millions of people that are part of the virtual community, and having those intersect each other expands the impact that a community can have. That’s one of the things we’re seeing with virtual communities. Frankly, there are communities that exist just virtually. There are many that have both an in-person presence and an annual Meetup where people are able to get together every week in a virtual context from all over the world.

Access is one. The benefits of hybrid are second. Are there challenges in virtual-only communities? If so, what are they? There is a place for virtual-only communities without a doubt. What can they do to try to counteract some of those challenges in your mind?

I’ve been a big fan of Meetup for a long time. The mission is to solve the loneliness epidemic. Virtual communities can help with that but they’re not in-person. That distinction remains to be seen. For example, if somebody lives purely in virtual communities, whether they’re going to be cured of loneliness or we need physical contact and in-person energy. We’re still figuring out those kinds of things.

Do you think you need in-person energy to feel a real connection?

I like in-person. My mission is not to replace in-person but instead to expand access to these kinds of communities, experiences, and human connections to make it easier to do those things. My mission is very much not to have us all live in Ready Player One and never intersect in real life. I love in-person meetings, gatherings, energy, dancing, music, and vibes. It’s hard to replace that. I don’t even think that should be the goal.

That’s particularly for niche-type groups like someone extremely interested in FIRE, which is about retiring early, or a very specific area of a hobby that someone might have. If you’re in a smaller city, you’re not going to necessarily have a group of people that are super interested in collecting stamps of DVDs. I don’t know what niche you could get for those kinds of things. When it comes to virtual, it gives you that access to these specific topics, which can be incredibly bonding for many people.

Each generation has its own story you can draw inspiration from. If you can bind internally to some character arc you make for yourself, it will motivate you to do anything.

When you talk about loneliness, one of the things that can make somebody feel incredibly lonely is feeling like they’re the only one that they know or that they have access to that is interested or has certain beliefs that they have. You hear that all the time in small cities. It’s one of the reasons that people want to move to New York City when they’re young. I did this. There, for anything that you’re interested in, there’s a whole community of people that are interested in that same thing. You do find that on the internet as well.

I believed for a long time that with the emergence of more universal Wi-Fi, productivity tools, and even the expense of some major cities, people were going to go more remote in general. There’s going to be a drive towards living in the woods and returning to nature. The ability to remote work was expanding well before the pandemic. We saw a trend line. With remote work, you need remote play and community. It would be magical to not have to live in New York City to find a community around your niche interests. That is one of the things that we will see with virtual communities.

I don’t want to get the Zoom gods against us but Zoom is easy because everyone knows Zoom. Everyone has a Zoom account. It’s super easy to use Zoom for one’s virtual communities and virtual events. I want to go too deep into Topia but I do want you to highlight some of the challenges with Zoom and ways in which people can have virtual events that could ideally be more meaningful at Meetup or outside of Meetup.

Zoom is incredible at what it is made for, which is meetings where one person at a time is speaking or where it’s heavily facilitated by somebody that’s putting people into breakout rooms, bringing them back, and curating the experience. What it’s not great for is emulating a real-life cocktail hour or happy hour Meetup. One of the magical things about Meetup if you meet a few people on Meetup.com or you a community or an event and go in person is the serendipity. It’s the wandering around the event, meeting people randomly, not having somebody telling you exactly what to do, and not listening to one person at a time speak the entire time.

Any Zoom serendipity is a scary moment. We have seen lots of videos of inappropriate and weird things happening on a Zoom call. That’s not the serendipity you want but there’s good serendipity that could happen. How do you create serendipity in a virtual way?

You need to create context. One of the things about an in-person meeting is that you’re meeting somewhere. There’s a place that you’re meeting and it has context. If you’re meeting at a bar, a bowling alley, or a baseball game, all of these different contexts make a huge difference in how you interact with the people around you.

The bonds that you form with others are based on the social experiences that you have and the memories that you’re able to form, which are largely driven by the context around you. Virtually, Zoom has no context. It’s just people staring at each other in the face. A lot of what you’re seeing with platforms like Topia is trying to make it easy for people to create places and context and bring people together in those spaces in the same way that people do in the real world.

You’re a creator. Why is creating so important to you? You would think it should be important to everyone but it’s not.

I grew up reading Harry Potter. I was embarrassingly old, but I thought that I had magical powers at one point. I would develop them. I have this character arc for myself in my head. As I grew up, I realized that I wasn’t a wizard. I wasn’t going to have magical powers but there was a way to be able to be a real-life sorcerer. Being able to learn how to code is like learning spells and being able to manifest things that you or other people imagine. Some of these are talking about an idea and being able to conjure that thing and then do it in a way where people will get joy from it and love it. There’s something deeply tied to magic, wizardry, joy, and energy in the creation process.

That is one of the most interesting reasons why people decide to go into computer science engineering because, in their minds, it’s the path towards magic and sorcery from the lens of Peter Pan of yore or Harry Potter of now. First of all, it makes me think about how many engineers JK Rowling may have created from her books because it sounds like it had a real impact on you.

It’s not just Harry Potter. There’s Lord of the Rings. There are many other series. With Harry Potter, what was interesting is I grew up the same age as Harry. It was that discovery of magic. It was being a muggle or a normal person and then the journey of discovery, growth, conquering challenges, and being kind to people. Not always being nice, which is something that you point out a lot, and certainly being kind. The whole thing resonated with me. I happened to grow up at the exact moment in that arc.

KCM 40 Daniel | Virtual Communities
Virtual Communities: Virtual communities will not replace in-person gatherings. Instead, they expand on them, making it easier to build human connections.

For others or the generation before me, it was things like Lord of the Rings and the elven empires and conjuring things that way. Each generation has its stories. It’s whatever you find that you can draw inspiration from. That becomes an internal inspiration. People talk about external and internal motivators. If you can find a story and bind yourself internally to some character arc that you make for yourself, that can be motivating for you to do anything that you can imagine.

I feel honestly so motivated to start taking some computer science classes and figure out how to build that. There are different ways of building. I’m more on the business side of the building. You’re more on the tech side. I don’t think you could build amazing experiences without both. That’s a fresh outlook and way of understanding the creative process. Thank you for sharing that.

Technical or business, it’s very similar. There are rules of the game. You’re learning how to use different variables to create success for yourself and also for everybody that’s counting on you and everybody that’s a stakeholder in whatever it is you’re doing. The business side is very Harry Potter as well. If you think of it that way, it certainly can be. You can create whatever you want. I created twenty different things in isolation often. I had different teams.

No one follows you.

Nobody cares. Often, it takes an ability to distribute, bring people together, and lead to make things useful. You can create things that are not useful all day. That doesn’t matter. It doesn’t have an impact and brings joy. There are two sides to any coin. Being able to organize, bring people together, distribute the thing, and get it into people’s hands that care about it is as important as building it, frankly.

The most complex creation can be incredibly unhelpful. The most simple creation can be powerful for so many. You’ve spoken a lot about democratizing access, and I love that. Are there any concrete examples that you can give of giving people access that you’ve heard from Topia and outside that people would never have had if in-person was the only way of going?

There are many stories. I’m sure you have a lot of them yourself with Meetup. One that sprung to mind is a couple of years ago, we had two countries that were in conflict with one another. We had people from each side wind up at a digital event. They started having a debate. There were other people standing by, listening, and participating in the debate that they were having. I wasn’t there but I heard the anecdote about it. What struck some of the participants and me is that the debate that we were having was very civil because they were seeing each other and looking into the whites of each other’s eyes. They were in a safe context.

If you have that interaction in an asynchronous forum or something and people were hiding behind a username and weren’t looking at each other, that’s when you often get some very toxic interactions. Seeing another human being and being in a safe space makes people act more human. It’s one of the important things in the evolution of the internet into something that provides a more synchronous social context. It makes people act more human towards each other.

It’s important that you had that. Let’s talk a little bit about what we have both been reading a ton of, which is around virtual fatigue and burnout of people being in front of their computers. There are ways of making virtual events fresh. What advice would you give to the tens of thousands of Meetup readers and non-Meetup readers about how to make their virtual experiences fresh and amazing? How to avoid that burnout of being in front of the laptop all the time? Maybe, it’s not as good as in-person but it’s still a truly energizing experience when you walk out of there like when you come back from an in-person event oftentimes. You’re like, “I met these amazing people. I’m so energized. I have three follow-ups.” How do you create that even more so virtually?

I don’t have a silver bullet for it but there are two things that you find in person that you can better emulate online historically with something like Zoom. One is having the ability to move around, meet people, and frankly leave a conversation that you don’t feel energized by. One of the things that you do in person at a Meetup is to gravitate towards wherever you’re going to get energy or find serendipity. You’re able to leave conversations. Sometimes you have to make an excuse, “I’m getting a drink. I’m going to the bathroom. I need to make a call.”

You have to find some path to moving to the next person.

Seeing another human being in a safe space makes them act more human. It’s an important aspect of the internet’s evolution that provides a more synchronous social context.

One of the weird revelations we had in digital is that it’s way less awkward to walk away. In-person, you have to make some excuse but in Topia, you might be connected to eight other people having a conversation, and you walk away. Nobody says anything. Nobody even cares. There’s more permission in a digital context to move in and out of conversations. That can be very calming knowing that you have an escape. What stresses people out about Zoom is they’re locked in. There’s nowhere to go. You can’t get away from it.

Sometimes you do feel stuck in Zoom. You certainly feel stuck in person. That is a great value of Topia or other such platforms where you could easily connect out of a conversation that may not be working. You had a second thing as well.

For people that are organizing events, we call these people confluencers. A confluence in nature is where a bunch of different rivers come together and become one. A confluencer in a digital context is a person or an entity that brings people together to be a community. The unsung heroes of the world are the people that are organizing things and bringing people together.

Often they get very little value returned to them aside from creating that energy and bringing their friends together. It’s looking at some of the things that work in person and then trying to emulate those with technologies that allow you to emulate them. Everybody has been to Meetups where it’s amazing, the energy is flowing, and you have so many different conversations.

You’ve been to ones where everybody is stagnant and nobody is moving. One of the interesting things that I’ve found is that movement makes a huge difference in encouraging movement within the in-person and digital Meetup. It’s encouraging people to switch who they’re talking to and announcing, “Everybody, whoever you’re talking to, talk to somebody else.”

There are musical Meetups and events. You can switch. That’s cool. You could do that. Speaking of movement, some of the best conversations and one-on-ones that I’ve ever had with people who work with me or I work for are when I say, “Let’s take a walk outside.” You’re walking together. I’m always thinking more clearly when I’m doing it versus the staleness of sitting in the office.

It does matter when you’re moving around, whether it’s virtual or in-person. You mentioned upfront this virtual Burning Man. If I can’t think of anything that’s probably more physically aligned, it’s Burning Man in some way. Tell me about the virtual Burning Man event that you ran. How many people were there? What happened? What worked? What didn’t work? I would love to hear about that.

We were one of the co-hosts of the virtual Burning Man in 2020. It was four months after our first line of code, which is a month into the pandemic. That was 2020. We ran it again in 2021. We had over 20,000 people each time that came to the experience. They were wildly different. The first time, we were trying to get out a system where people can get together. We built a whole world.

In Topia, you can empower people to build portals to the worlds that they’re building. Anybody that has been to Burning Man knows that you have a main playa and then there are hundreds of camps. Each camp is run by organizers or individuals that take on the responsibility of building something out and offering something to the community. We enabled that as well.

In the first one, we had 50 different camps. There were entire worlds that were built with portals from the main playa. They had events that were scheduled, comedians, and singers. For the second one in 2021, we hosted an entire music festival. We had a whole lineup. That was fun. We had portals to worlds. The worlds were way better built out because we have better tools in that second year.

It was vibey. It was interesting though. To people that had been to Burning Man many times, it was very mixed. Some people are like, “This is similar. It’s amazing that all these people that have never been to Burning Man are able to experience this.” Others were like, “This is stupid. It’s nothing like the actual Burning Man. What are we even doing in here?” They’re divided that way, which was fascinating.

KCM 40 Daniel | Virtual Communities
Virtual Communities: Movement makes a huge difference within in-person meetups. In the digital environment, encourage people to switch to the person they are talking to.

They gave it a shot.

A lot of people had always been curious about Burning Man but had never pulled the trigger. There are a lot of reasons that’s going, “It is scary. It’s expensive and prohibitive.” They don’t have friends that are going to go with them and the time off. A lot of those people experienced it for the first time. You did get the vibe. They got the ethos. It was a powerful experience for a lot of those folks.

It’s a good way to dip your toe in the water before dipping your entire body into the Burning Man water. It is on my bucket list of things to do one day. Our chairman, Kevin Ryan, has been going to Burning Man for 5 to 10 years and swears by the experience. One day, he and I will hopefully get a chance to go together.

It’s happening again in person in 2022. The tickets sold out in ten seconds. They sold half the tickets that they normally do. There were five times as many people trying to buy them or something like that.

There’s a lot of deep-seated need to get out and do fun, meaningful, and exciting things. Burning Man is the penultimate of those experiences. As our readers can tell, Daniel is not your typical person. He is in certain ways a tinker and a genius. For those reading, you can’t see what Daniel looks like but he’s got the ponytail, stubble, and cool vibe going on. I know there’s a story behind you and why the community is important to you. Share a little bit about why is community such an important passion of yours. I would love to hear about it.

There are a few things. One, I grew up with a large family. We would go to summer camp. My entire extended family would descend on the summer camp and make up a quarter of the kids or something like that.

How big was your family? Your parents have how many siblings?

There are four on each side and then lots of cousins. My mom was the camp doctor. It was a Jewish camp. My uncle is a rabbi.

This is Camp Liebeskind.

It’s called the Eisner. That was my first introduction to a community. We would go every year. It was a beautiful experience. Even with my cousins, family events were steeped in a community and seeing dynamics that have stuck with me through life. That was my first deep immersion in a community. I built apps for eight years. I had a dev shop. I built 22 different applications over that time.

I was a digital nomad. I was traveling the world. I lived in Thailand and Bali. There were spiritual communities that I was part of and yogis. That was my inspiration for wanting to create a platform for creators, artists, musicians, and yogis that needed a way to create their digital ecosystems and then bring people together at scale. That was something hard for people that were living in Thailand that didn’t understand computers.

Being kind to people is critical. Be sure to manifest that positive to the world.

I haven’t made something that’s perfect for them yet but that is part of the inspiration. The community, the energy, and the experiences of meeting different people and having serendipity were amazing. I would be living in Bali and I would go to Thailand. I would see somebody from my Bali community in Thailand. The moment that we know each other in this new context was so powerful. In many ways, those kinds of experiences were what drove me to be who I am.

You’re such an extrovert and outgoing. Were you ever in a lonely place? When you were traveling the world, you meet a ton of people. That’s why you weren’t lonely because of those communities.

I think of myself as an introvert that’s disguised as an extrovert. When I was a kid, I played a lot of video games. I built games. That was my passion. I had friends but it wasn’t my driver. I liked creating and frankly connecting online. Multiplayer games have been a way that I’ve connected with my IRL friends. I played video games and multiplayer games. That was our thing. I had aspects of being lonely when I was a kid that way. I isolated myself in my room for periods. I had some existential crises when I was 16 to 17 as many kids do.

You read a lot of Ayn Rand back then.

I did read Atlas Shrugged. I was a libertarian all of that. I wouldn’t say I’m a particularly lonely person. I’ve always been able to find a community in the places that I go. For periods of time, I have self-isolated intentionally. One of the things that recharge me is alone time. It’s being in the woods in particular by myself, walking, hiking, or going on an epic adventure by myself or with 1 or 2 other people. Sometimes I get overwhelmed when there are tons of people.

It dates back to those early days at camp and the impact that camp had perhaps for you on being an outdoors person and how meaningful it was. I was reading a book about the importance of spending alone time, like 1, 2, or 3 days by yourself. It doesn’t mean be a monk and spend 30 days by oneself. The day before Passover, I tested positive. We have a second home. I went to our second home and isolated for five days completely by myself. A lot of people said, “That must have been so hard to spend the holiday by yourself, etc.” I said, “There was something very therapeutic about being in nature.” It’s a calving area in nature. It’s healthy. For people that do have that inclination, that can be powerful.

That’s amazing. Here’s another random anecdote. At the digital Burning Man, we made the whole background black. It felt nighttime and very much like what Burning Man feels like. One night, I left the group I was talking to and having an experience with and biked around the playa for an hour by myself. It felt a little bit like when you’re at Burning Man and you go off by yourself and have some solo adventure as people call it. You can intentionally find loneliness and alone time online even in a social context if you so choose. That can be re-energizing like going into the woods or being in your second house.

Honestly, I would never have thought of that because I think of online as the most crowded place in the world. That’s very interesting. We’re up to the rapid-fire questions. There are quick questions and quick answers. Here we go. What was your first job?

I was being a grocery store bagger. I discovered that if you help people bring their groceries to the parcel pickup area, you would get a tip. I was a bagger but then I became a parcel person because they forced my way in there.

You could access a time machine. You traveled the world but you haven’t traveled in time to my knowledge. Where are you going and when?

It’s 1968 or 1969. There was such a crackling of energy, civil rights movements, and social reform. People were pushing the limits on what was acceptable and possible. I’ve always been fascinated with the music and the energy around the music.

KCM 40 Daniel | Virtual Communities
Virtual Communities: You can intentionally find loneliness online, even in a social context. It allows you to reenergize, just like going into the woods or being in your second house.

Are you going to Woodstock? Are you going to one of the marches? What are you going to do?

I’m probably going to New York City, marches, and Woodstock. I would also go out to Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco and all the hippie hotspots.

Do you have a favorite quote?

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” The idea of being kind to people is important. That’s something I’ve read from things that you’ve written and spoken about. I do think that being kind is critical. I love when people are kind to me. Manifesting out in the world and showing the world the energy that you want to receive is important.

Being kind can be the best thing that you do for yourself. For people that needed to be convinced if it is worth it or not worth it, the answer is sometimes the most selfish thing you do for yourself is to be unselfish. Keep that in mind. Thank you for calling it out. What’s something on your bucket list? You have done a ton of interesting stuff. What have you not done that is doable by not going backward in time but you still want to do?

What about going forward in time? This is a weird thing that occurred to me. This is not a thing that is possible yet but it’s connecting my consciousness with somebody else and experiencing the world as somebody else, which will be possible with neuro links. For things that are possible now, I would love to run with the bulls. Ernest Hemingway was talking about it. I don’t even necessarily want the action. I want the energy and the feeling of being in a crowd in that experience. For some reason, it’s something that I’ve always pined for.

You’ve got to do it, not virtually but in real life. Here’s the last question. You’re a real leader in building a community for others, which is an incredibly kind act. I’m confident you’re going to be doing that for decades to come because it is your life’s passion. What related to that or even unrelated to it do you most want to be remembered by?

I love creating things that people love. That’s my biggest passion. That doesn’t have to be technology platforms. That could extend to helping people to grow and thereby helping to create what they are. If they’re kind to people and people love them, I get a lot of energy and joy from that. Creating platforms, experiences, and moments that people love is something that I would love to be known by.

Daniel, it’s so awesome talking to you.

You too.

Rock on. Thank you. Take care.

Thanks for having me.

This is one interesting guy. When you learn that the number one thing that he wants to do on his bucket list is to change consciousness with someone, you’re talking to someone who thinks outside of the box. There is no box with Daniel. That’s one of the things I loved about this conversation. Learning about his focus on why he became the creator that he is, the impact of both in-person and virtual communities, and the benefits of both were particularly helpful for me. If you enjoyed this episode, then subscribe, leave a review, and check out my new book, Decide and Conquer. Remember, let’s keep connected because life is better together.


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