XOXO Festival co-founder Andy Baio unveiled his newest project on Tuesday: a new platform for virtual events called Skittish.
Skittish looks like a very cute version of social spaces in video games like Second Life or VRChat but built specifically to host online events. You attend events as an adorable animal avatar, and explore the worlds created for you by clicking around with your mouse or navigating with the WASD keys on your keyboard like you might in a video game.
As you explore a Skittish world, you’ll be able to catch snippets of conversations or overhear something exciting going on thanks to spatial audio, which makes sounds fade in and out depending on how near you are to the source. (If you’ve played a game with proximity-based voice chat, it’s a similar concept.) If you hear something interesting, you can mosey over to it to learn more, like you might at an in-person event.
And if you’re the one organizing an event on Skittish, the platform is designed to give you lots of tools to craft a space that’s tailored to your needs. Baio showed me an early version of Skittish, and it was simple to place not just environmental objects like rocks and trees, but also entire screens playing YouTube videos and even portals to new areas.
Baio also sees an opportunity for Skittish to be used by creators to host things like private meetups for supporters or as a place to debut a new YouTube video or a song. And I could totally see it — with how flexible the Skittish spaces seem even at this early stage, I think there’s a lot of possibility for people to use them in creative ways.
“The project was inspired by Baio’s time attending virtual events during the pandemic”
The project was inspired by Baio’s time attending virtual events during the pandemic — many of which weren’t all that great, by his estimation. “A lot of them didn’t feel like events to me,” Baio said in an interview with The Verge. “They weren’t social in any meaningful way.” Some felt like “sort of like watching a YouTube video with a chat room,” while others had elements like breakout rooms that were intended to recreate a social experience that just weren’t the same as an in-person event. (And Baio knows how to pull off good events.)
But Baio still did see good event virtual spaces, like 2020’s Roguelike Celebration, which had a custom-built social space that resembled an old-school text-based adventure game, and LikeLike’s experimental online video game exhibitions, which include a “First Person Soother” and a pixelated gallery space / MMO. Baio also spoke highly of some of the hit games of the pandemic, such as Animal Crossing: New Horizons, which he played “like every day for months and months.” Those events, games, and the idea of using proximity chat all provided inspiration for what would eventually become Skittish.
Baio tells The Verge he plans to add things like text chat, moderation tools, and more customization options to Skittish. He plans to charge for the service and may offer a limited free tier at some point, but there are financial costs and concerns about moderation to consider with a free tier.
“You can’t just ignore the potential problematic uses of social spaces,” Baio says. “You can’t just say, ‘we’ll just open it up to everybody and we’ll just see what happens.’ You have to be cognizant of the potential misuse, abuse, and harm that could be done when creating a social platform. Having an unlimited free tier without having the moderation resources to understand how it was being used would be irresponsible.”
The project is still early, with no set timeline for when it might be available to more people. But if you want to help with beta testing, or just want to keep up to date on the project, there’s a mailing list you can sign up for now.