How Did MetaMask Come To Life? The Origin Story, Revealed
Among the global Web3 community, everyone is well acquainted with the MetaMask fox. But do they know the minds behind it? In a culture that prizes bombast and Twitter flame wars, Dan Finlay and Aaron Davis take a more inquisitive and modest approach to community building. For this reason, in the six years of building MetaMask, they haven’t done many interviews—never together. “We prefer focusing our time on empowering the community. We are not the only ones behind the project, the whole community is.” While they still weigh in on important industry discourse, such as Moxie’s critique of Web3, or comment on the latest peer-to-peer networking and encryption libraries, they are more reserved when it comes to sharing their personal story. Who are they? What’s their background? How did they meet? What causes are they passionate about? How did the MetaMask idea come to life? Like the hundreds of thousands of brilliant minds creating the everyday Web3 use cases of tomorrow, Aaron and Dan have a singular story, an unexpected journey that led them to create what is today the way millions of people worldwide access Web3.
Dan, an English Literature major, and Aaron, a Japanese and Chinese scholar, first met in 2013. Their divergent lives intersected while contributing to the project VoxelJS, an open-source Minecraft clone, making an environment to help kids learn to program in the browser, followed by jobs at Mochaleaf, a startup that was acquired by Apple. Each of them were on their own path and at the time, it seemed improbable that one day they would create the iconic fox.
Dan was born in Detroit, briefly moved to New York, and is now settled with his wife on the Pacific Coast in California. While he is not a huge traveler, he has loved his visits to Japan and Turkey. Globetrotting Aaron on the other hand, likes to change homes frequently, but has most consistently lived around the ring of fire — Japan, China, Bali, and now Hawaii. Like a true adventurer, he is driven by curiosity and has a deep appreciation of the historical and social origins of culture.
When they were children, Aaron just wanted to play video games while Dan first wanted to live in an igloo. While this made sense at the time, Dan later realized that this might be a bit complicated and then decided that he wanted to be an astronaut. Over the years, their dreams naturally evolved, and Dan ditched the igloo and rocketship ideas for art, video production, and improv. He studied English Literature at University. Aaron studied Japanese with the hopes of becoming a simultaneous interpreter. When asked about his unique career aspirations, Aaron explained, “You have to get everything out of your brain to be a conduit for translation, I found the pure alignment of mind very inspiring.” People do say that software engineering is just like learning another language; both require a sensitivity to detail, a capacity for logical construction, and comfort with semiotics. In many ways, by their early twenties, they were already halfway to their programming life.
For Dan, coding started more than 10 years ago with a scatological app idea: Fartomin, a fart synthesizer. “I didn’t know how to code so I read a book to learn how to do it,” he recounts. Still staying true to his childhood dreams, Aaron tried to develop video games— “I didn’t have any guidance so I was trying to learn from what other people made, read it then tweak it.”
After Dan’s diverse stints working as a portrait artist, videographer, museum docent, arcade supervisor, balloon twister, chess coach, and screen printer, his path crossed with Aaron in 2013 at Apple, after Kumavis himself retired from being a camp counselor, lifeguard, interpreter, and waiter in Japan. They both wanted to work on peer-to-peer computing, or, “crazy ambitious ideas that still resemble what we are doing,” explains Aaron.
This sense of sharing, building a community, and creating platforms for safe collaboration is motivated by social inequality and the rights of others. Dan is captivated with human rights and connecting with people. His sense of social justice was shaped by his family’s own experiences with the Detroit auto industry collapse, and the farm worker movement in California. “I hate that we are building on years of businesses deliberately externalizing their impacts and exploiting everything they can for profit.” His first experience with community currencies came from Charquin, his alternative elementary school. If you ask Aaron what he hates the most, he’d tell you that he doesn’t want to rely on people he doesn’t trust to do things. “I hate being deprived of agency,” he says. Their aspirational and philosophical ideas around technology were converging and the idea of MetaMask was slowly coming to life.
According to Aaron, “One part of tech and politics was coming through projects like torrents. People were doing something really complicated and everyone was working together to pull it off. I wanted to see how we could do it in a bunch of other ways.” This moment was before Ethereum had even launched.
In 2014, the second largest blockchain was created, which put a bug in their ear. “When I heard about Ethereum and the ideas surrounding it, I thought that they fit a couple things that sounded like what I wanted to make—a modular democracy or better debate system. I wanted to use computers to help people raise funds, send micropayments, and more,” explains Dan. They knew it would be cool to have a website backed by the Ethereum network, but how the login would work was unclear. Web-based crowdfunding was still kind of new. Aaron was interested in crowdfunding a project on Ethereum and worked backwards from there. He spent a while making a sophisticated account manager that was like a browser within a browser, and then, Dan came in. While there were many early in-person hacking sessions, they also developed a way of working across timezones that in some ways represents the collaborative efforts of building a decentralized technology like Ethereum. Together, they reduced the initial scope of MetaMask, and pivoted to making a web extension. This helped get it just good enough to start taking it to hackathons and getting developers to play with it.
In 2016, MetaMask and the fox were born.
Why a fox? Aaron wanted an animal mascot and had the idea of a low-poly fox. “The fox for me invokes a number of things: the folk hero of Disney’s Robinhood, rebellion against tradition, the clever solitary creature as an image of self-custody, a chance encounter in the dark forest, and solving the problem of safe collaboration or how we can trust each other.” When Dan saw the idea, he worked with a local modeler to make it 3D, and then made it interactive. They also needed a name…
Aaron likes naming things but he also knows that it’s hard to get it right. He spent a lot of time reflecting on a name that we now know as MetaMask and described, “I wanted something that matches the purpose, rolls off the tongue nicely, and mostly passes the “phone test”: can you say it over the phone and can they write it down?” Meta means self-referential. Mask, as in a decorative or drama mask, is a metaphor for identity.” MetaMask was meant to mean, “the identity of your identities,” or, “the thing you use to manage your many identities.” Needless to say, the appellation stuck, and in the 2020s, is rather clairvoyant given Facebook’s rebrand.
It’s been a hectic and unique journey for the team. When looking back, some memories that stand out include staying up all night during the rise of CryptoKitties in 2017 to come up with a way to alleviate the stalled transactions. “I also remember our retreat in 2018 when we first started talking about how we would scale the product, and let users add new networks.” In 2019, the Snaps project came to life. “2020 was a huge dramatic year where we first started seeing the new ways in which scammers phished our users’ Secret Recovery Phrases, but then shipped the Swaps feature that gave us our first actual revenue, and allowed us to hire more reliably.” 2021 was a year of rapid growth, laying the foundation for MetaMask’s most ambitious plans. 2022 has been a year of building the systems and teams MetaMask needs to fulfill users’ needs more completely.
Dan and Aaron both share the belief that we should establish new trust foundations. Dan stated, “Today, most people neither know how to trust computers, nor each other. The internet has shattered our sense of unity. I want to leave people feeling like they are able to trust more things again, but for the right reasons.” Looking at the future, Aaron is convinced that, “most things in Web3 that are popular now won’t be around in 20 or 30 years,” so he tracks the themes and forms, not the specifics. His goal for Web3 is to build a “civilization starter kit.”
“Do you ever feel like society is starting to collapse? Let’s have a large-scale backup plan.”
They are both deeply convinced that MetaMask is all about the community that is building the future features of the wallet through MetaMask Snaps. If they were to give one piece of advice to developers, Dan says, “It’s all about finding a way to serve the rest of humanity. Focus on the problems people have, listen to people, learn how things work, and then see if you can make life a little easier for someone. Along the way, you might discover things that would make things easier for you to make things easier for them, and those are also valid ways to build, but you have to start with something you care about doing for someone else.” Aaron invites developers to, “try lots of things. Have faith you can figure out how to do something if you put in the time.”
Because you—we—are building the future.