Trevor McFedries knows how to sell the future of the web. ‘We need a revolution to escape the current neoliberal hellscape,’ he says, bearded and wearing a plain gray T-shirt during a Zoom call from Paris, where he’s attending a conference on the cryptocurrency blockchain platform Ethereum. ‘Social mobility has been a myth for many people, with finance locked in a cave and content creators in golden handcuffs.’
For Trevor, 35, the answer lies in a new, decentralized metaverse: Web3, a smarter online network defined by new technologies such as artificial intelligence, augmented reality and the internet of things (interconnected computing devices in everyday objects). For believers like Trevor, innovations such as blockchain (a kind of digital ledger that records and verifies transactions) will lead to a more evenly distributed system that reduces the need for corporate and government intervention, including that of the banks controlling money, or the tech giants that dictate the flow of information.
Based in LA, Trevor has tended to exist ahead of the digital mainstream. His most famous creation is Miquela, a virtual 19-year-old ‘change-seeking robot’ with 3 million Instagram followers, who was among the first of a wave of virtual influencers when she appeared in 2016. His latest venture, Friends With Benefits, is one of a new crop of token-driven social networks offering everything from events and Web3 forums to city guides and exhibitions of non-fungible tokens (or NFTs – tradeable one-off digital products, whether art, music, a meme or whatever).
Users can access the Friends With Benefits community by buying $FWB social coins. ‘I see myself as a conceptual entrepreneur in some ways,’ says Trevor, who has just hosted an FWB event in the French capital, open to guests who hold 75 $FWB (roughly $490 at the time of going to press). ‘I’ve always been interested in new ideas.’
Those new ideas haven’t always been easily understood. In the late nineties, at high school in Davenport, Iowa, Trevor didn’t just use his self-taught coding skills to build websites for local family-owned businesses, but to download and share music and other content. He moved with his family to LA aged 16, and was a DJ and record producer by his early 20s. At the time, he saw music-industry bosses who were scared by the onset of streaming and illegal downloads. ‘To me, it was an opportunity to rethink the music industry in a way that gives a chance to guys like Trevor from the Midwest,’ he says.
While he was making music with the likes of Kesha and Shwayze, Trevor would be pulled into meetings with music executives to explain how coders and hackers saw the industry. He was already thinking of himself as a businessperson as much as an artist – having had stints as a record-company scout and directing music videos – when Spotify made him one of its first US employees in 2012, giving him a front-row seat to witness a massive industry shake-up.
But his biggest idea would come to fruition in 2016. Half Brazilian and half Spanish, with freckles and Princess Leia-esque buns, Miquela posts shortly and sweetly on topics ranging from the Mario Kart video games to Black Lives Matter and ‘coming out’ as a robot. In TikTok videos and radio appearances, she is a sharply styled version of a woke LA teenager, albeit one who has released singles on Spotify, launched a ‘digital psychedelia’ fashion line and made out with the model Bella Hadid in a Calvin Klein advert.
Trevor came up with the idea of Miquela as ‘a new way to engage and mobilize people through storytelling, to build a more tolerant reality’. He says he wanted to create a kind of outsider character after seeing the effect that TV sitcom Will & Grace had on the gay-marriage debate in the US, as well as noticing ‘warped views on everything from climate change to the ways that young men see women on social media’.
While critics have since argued that Miquela and other virtual influencers actually promote unabashed consumerism and unrealistic beauty ideals, Trevor’s other reason for creating her is more compelling: scalability. He saw all the content tie-ups that a personal brand like Kendall Jenner or Rihanna can command, and wondered what would happen if such a person could speak multiple languages, work across platforms and do fashion shoots or radio appearances on different continents at the same time.
But this was a tough sell to investors in 2016. Trevor says that he had more than 60 rejections before Jonathon Triest at future-facing Detroit venture capital firm Ludlow Ventures offered him $400,000 of seed funding, allowing Trevor’s studio, Brud, to scale as rapidly as he wanted Miquela to. Brud has since received more than $6 million from venture capital tech giants, including Sequoia Capital and Spark Capital, as money has flooded into future technologies. A team of about 40 graphic artists, engineers and content producers now work on Miquela, as well as her sister avatars: a Trump-supporting It-girl called Bermuda (286k followers) and a tech-savvy low-life named Blawko (148k followers).
Brud doesn’t release financial figures, but online marketplace OnBuy has estimated that Miquela brings in more than $10 million a year from tie-ups with brands such as Prada or the Mini car marque, while wearing the latest Moschino jacket in Instagram shoots or magazine fashion spreads – she has been on the cover of titles including Wired and Elle.
This form of modern, multi-channel brand building is arguably more pioneering than the actual technology used to power Miquela. Her photographs and video appearances are created using widely adopted animation technology, and her interactions with followers use algorithms that can answer only basic questions like: ‘How old are you?’ (Brud moderators lead more complicated interactions.) Other companies are doing more progressive work with AI technology and content. Fable Studio, for example, makes virtual-reality films such as the Emmy-winning Wolves in the Walls, featuring AI-driven characters that users can interact with.
Still, Miquela allows Brud to be both a player and a leader in the latest digital trends – such as NFTs. Miquela’s first NFT, ‘Rebirth of Venus’, an image of her covered in holographic butterflies, sold for about $82,000 worth of Ether cryptocurrency last November on art forum SuperRare. This year, she dropped five NFTs for free on Twitter, with the tokens gifted to selected followers who shared their Ether wallet addresses. She tweeted: ‘Making, minting and manifesting this Venus series of NFTs with y’all has been SO. DAMN. SPECIAL.’
Looked at another way, Brud’s virtual influencers are essentially an elaborate exercise in using hype to build and monetize an online community. Trevor admires the musician Lil Nas X, for example, for his ‘growth hacking’ skills, from ‘Tweetdecking’ – an organized system of mass retweeting among members of a Twitter group to make posts go viral – to the memes and relentless TikTok promotion of his wildly successful single ‘Old Town Road’. The inference is that it’s fair game to use whatever buzz-creating tools are available.
Friends With Benefits, the latest side hustle in Trevor’s ‘full-stack’ career, was partly inspired by platforms such as Patreon, OnlyFans and Substack, which allow content creators to charge subscriptions. But he says he wanted to go further, allowing users to have an actual stake in the content they’re creating and consuming, like investors. He says he wants to build a ‘city in itself’, where people can browse NFTs or interact with music producers and cryptocurrency change-makers.
A number of similar token-driven social communities are launching. Social tokens are available on cryptocurrency exchanges such as Coinbase – including those for networking chat group $KARMA, and $CHERRY for NSFW content creators. Most have incentives to encourage participation; Friends With Benefits has three-month seasons, and if users are active in the community, they’ll have their season pass renewed automatically. If not, they’ll have to buy more $FWB tokens to rejoin. If membership grows, the price of tokens is likely to rise.
With blockchain startups raising $4.38 billion in the second quarter of 2021, according to analytics firm CB Insights, the prospects for tokenization are almost limitless. Frenchman Alex Masmej, for example, created the $ALEX, essentially a ‘human IPO’ bet on the success of his own career, while there are coins dedicated to Trump, Putin and Kanye West.
‘Tokenization means that you can create a market for anything,’ says Trevor. ‘And users can benefit from championing what they love, unlike in the old days, when you’d buy Mickey Mouse ears and essentially become an unpaid billboard.’
He explains that the 2013 launch of Dogecoin, the cryptocurrency that rose by 11,000% earlier this year, was based on a bet on the life cycle of a joke about a dog meme. This seems wild to a lot of people but, for Trevor, it’s no more absurd than the complex economic structures that brought about the financial crisis. The difference with Dogecoin or $FWB is that ‘people who have been excluded from the system get to play’.