What Reese Witherspoon Got Right—and Wrong—in Her Viral Crypto Tweet
A recent and seemingly out-of-character tweet from Reese Witherspoon has been getting lots of attention. “In the (near) future, every person will have a parallel digital identity,” the actor wrote to her 2.9 million followers. “Avatars, crypto wallets, digital goods will be the norm. Are you planning for this?”
The tweet, posted on January 11, attracted nearly 15,000 replies, not all of which were kind: “This is more embarrassing for you than doing late night infomercials,” one user wrote. Another posted, “This most certainly has to be the plot for Legally Blonde 3.” Others speculated that Witherspoon’s tweet may be a sign she’s getting paid to promote cryptocurrency companies like fellow celebrities Matt Damon and Kim Kardashian.
Theories aside, Witherspoon was, of course, talking about the metaverse. It’s the same drum that Facebook pounded when it rebranded to Meta in 2021. We will all one day live in cyberspace, the idea goes, in immersive virtual worlds that will be as real to us as actual real life. It’s a notion couched in spectacle and hype—which might mask the seriousness underneath it all. But Witherspoon erred only in not going far enough: Her predictions are already happening. These digital identities are not “parallel” to real life, they are part of it. The metaverse is already here.
We now conduct so much of our affairs online that our various accounts have become essential parts of us. Emails, social media, online banking and government accounts—these are our means of communications, social circles and even where we offload our inner thoughts. To many of the people we interact with in our day-to-day lives, our identities no longer lie so much in our flesh and blood, but our virtual presence.
Plus, new forms of digital identities are already a thing. Brands are paying large sums for coveted social media usernames, because such online-only credentials have real-world value and importance, signalling traits about their owners such as wealth, fame, resourcefulness or clout—not unlike honorary degrees or knighthoods in real life. Twitter is even rolling out a new form of verification for NFTs (non-fungible tokens). This means that those, like Witherspoon, whose profile pictures are tied to such blockchain-based assets, can prove they are the original owners of their expensive avatars.
At the same time, virtual platforms have become increasingly essential to our livelihoods. In 2021, creators on the subscription site OnlyFans were abruptly threatened with a ban on sexual content, and Canadian retailers were suddenly suspended from selling on Amazon over a previously little-enforced shipping rule. Uproar abounded because those people’s income hinged entirely on their digital tools and platforms, a shift that pandemic lockdowns have dramatically accelerated. These examples illuminate our reliance on metaverse: In these instances, online storefronts proved to have more value than brick-and-mortar ones.
And is the real world even that real? Research continuously shows that our worldviews are influenced by the media we take in—news, podcasts, music, television—but we are often not conscious consumers. Our diets are shaped by algorithms and our social media interactions, or straight-up dictated by a tech company. In parts of the Global South, many people’s entire internet is a limited, free version curated by Meta. How does that affect how they see the world? It’s the same question the Financial Times asked in 2020 when it investigated how Amazon’s Alexa smart assistant picks the news items it puts out. In many ways, we are already living in artificially created realities.
The metaverse lies not in fancy goggles and life-like avatars. It lies not even in crypto wallets and million-dollar NFTs. The metaverse is about the digital and intangible having real-world value and significance—and having the sort of power over us we sometimes realize only too late. Those OnlyFans creators and Amazon shippers were certainly unprepared when they had this fact rudely thrust upon them. And that’s a risk we all face, continuously handing over bits and pieces of ourselves to the digital masters.
It’s anybody’s guess what the solution is, if there even is one, but perhaps the first step is realizing the future into which we are sleepwalking. Witherspoon is right, but not right enough. Are you planning for this?