I bought my own apartment on a virtual version of Earth – and made a whopping 24 cents doing it

  • Earth 2 is a platform which lets users buy up virtual land on a digital representation of Earth.
  • It’s one of the latest manifestations of the NFT trend, where speculators buy up digital, blockchain-based assets in the hope of seeing big profits.
  • I decided to start my journey into the dark heart of digital real estate by buying my own apartment on Earth 2.
  • Visit Business Insider Australia’s homepage for more stories.

There’s a phrase on everyone’s lips at the moment: non-fungible tokens, or NFTs.

In short, NFTs is a special class of digital assets which are unique, not interchangeable, and cannot be broken down into smaller values like cryptocurrencies. Ownership is usually tracked on the blockchain, which makes it very easy to identify who ‘owns’ a digital asset, and keeps the number artificially limited. NFTs and the process of minting them allows people to turn anything in the ephemeral online world into an asset that can be purchased, traded and sold.

Led by wildly successful commercial efforts like NBA Top Shots – which sells short basketball clips as tokens – and lucrative ‘crypto art’ from high-profile players like Grimes, the NFT market grew by 299% in 2020.

Sound crazy? Well, it kind of is. And perhaps the nuttiest manifestation of the NFT concept yet is Earth 2, a platform which allows people to buy up virtual real estate with very real money. And people are spending thousands of actual dollars building their virtual property portfolios.

This is how the website describes the project: “Earth 2 is a futuristic concept for a second earth; a metaverse, between virtual and physical reality in which real-world geolocations on a sectioned map correspond to user generated digital virtual environments.”

Dig under the standard crypto evangelist spin and you’ll find something far more anodyne: it’s a Google-style map (provided by MapBox) with an overlay that parcels up the planet into small tiles you can purchase at a base rate of roughly 10 bucks each. With a few clicks, you can amass a virtual property portfolio to rival some of Australia’s developer kingpins, all without leaving your office chair or engaging with any real estate agents or local councils.

And people are buying. According to Earth 2’s leaderboard, the top player holds over a quarter of a million dollars worth of tiles. That might not seem like much in the grand scheme of things, but it’s certainly not nothing when we’re talking about completely virtual real estate.

As with many other NFTs, this is a game of speculation, and the real world value is questionable at best. Though Earth 2 suggests it will open up new avenues of value creation (like allowing people to sell advertising on their blocks of digital land) there’s little question the platform is mostly driven by the ‘line go up’ slot machine mentality that drives so much of the crypto universe.

Naturally, users will gravitate to choice real estate in the world’s most famous cities. For example, most of Sydney and Melbourne’s prime inner-city and tourist locations have already been snapped up, with some sizeable blocks worth big money. For these intrepid land speculators, the thinking is that, as Earth 2 becomes more popular and people seek to buy in their own virtual hometowns dream cities, the value of their portfolio will also increase.

A quick scope of a random area of Sydney’s CBD, for example, shows that you’re not buying there anywhere soon without forking over some cash to another user. Many of those blocks – identified by the country flag the user has selected to represent themselves – are worth thousands of dollars.

But, as with the rest of the crazy, increasingly hot NFT market, the value is like Tinkerbell: it only exists when people believe in it. And when it comes to purely online, intangible goods, belief alone seems pretty tenuous. The prospect of making real coin on a platform like Earth 2 appears remote, especially when compared to the very real possibility the bottom will fall out of the market entirely in the blink of an eye, once everyone moves on to a new shiny toy.

But, as we sit amid a wildly inflated Australian property market, with prices going to the moon amid a perennial low interest rate environment, owning a slice of land – even if it’s, by any metric, not real – starts looking mighty appealing. I decided I was only going to dip my toe in.

Immersing myself in the brave new world

Before beginning my own Earth 2 portfolio, I spoke to my co-worker Matt, who had already jumped in with both feet. Being an astute investor with a keen understanding of what the punters want, he had chosen to purchase the tiles on top of the grungy shopping mecca of Sydney’s inner western suburbs: Marrickville Metro.

“I immediately did what I assume most people did and found where they actually live in real life, but before I pulled the trigger I thought I should probably look into how all of this stuff works,” Matt told me.

“After realising I’d be better off buying something that people will actually want to visit in future iterations of the game – like the Sydney Opera House – I searched around the CBD to find that I’d been beaten to most major landmarks and their surrounding area. Instead, I settled for a nice little slice of the Marrickville Metro. A true landmark of the Inner West.”

Lest anyone think he was toying with a non-diversified portfolio, Matt said he “also bought a single square in the Wellington CBD for like two bucks”, and a handful of squares over known gold reserves in Peru, because “at some point natural resources will be a way of making money”.

“I still have no idea how this will work, but hey, I’ve fed more money to a poker machine, so I figure it’s worth a punt,” he added.

I wasn’t quite ready to take such a strategic view. I only wanted to be along for the ride, so I did the inadvisable and purchased my own apartment. Now, my apartment block spreads out over six tiles, a commitment I wasn’t willing to make. So instead, I purchased two tiles corresponding to my general location in the building for US$20.59. The site accepts Apple Pay as well as a host of other purchasing methods, making the buying process incredibly smooth.

Here’s what’s on my profile – censored, of course.

My neighbourhood is not all that hot, it seems. When I made the purchase last week, almost nothing in a kilometre or so radius had been snapped up, and that remains the case today.

However, I’m still in the green. After purchasing the land for $20.59, it is now worth $20.83 less than a week later. That makes for a 1.17% increase and a whopping 24c in profit if I decided to sell today. Had I bought a lot more land, that little bump might have looked a bit more exciting.

I see sparks of the same allure that drives Bitcoin: the sense that this thing is only going up, and you’d be mad not to jump on the train. But, unlike Bitcoin, you don’t really see anyone arguing this has any utility outside of pure speculation. As such, it feels like an even more fragile house of cards than the rest of the crypto universe.

Regardless of any of that, I don’t see myself investing much further in Earth 2. I don’t feel I would make an effective digital land speculator. But I am happy to hold onto my two tiles of Sydney real estate and see where it goes – hopefully, to the moon.