Facebook has been talking about its plans for the metaverse for most of this year and has promised to lose a lot of money to help its goals in this area. Yesterday, the company said it would change its name to “Meta” to show how serious it was about this commitment. (And, well, there’s another reason.) Meta says that the metaverse is “a new phase of connected virtual experiences using technologies like virtual and augmented reality.” Given how many companies are now talking about the metaverse in very real terms, we have to answer one very obvious question: What really is a metaverse?
Everything that comes next should be read with the right amount of ahs, ahems, polite coughs, and other disclaimers. After all, a number of companies have started to use the word “metaverse” to get some of the attention that the metaverse hype train is getting. “The metaverse” is being used to describe whatever is next for the internet in a way that is similar to “Web 2.0.” A computer world that looks just like ours? Metaverse. A way to buy and sell NFTs of Elon Musk dressed up as a dog? Metaverse. A new way to do business and talk to people? Metaverse. If the metaverse comes to be, it’s likely that when we look back on it in a decade or two, it won’t look at all like what its supporters say it will.
Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, writes in his Founders Letter that the metaverse is “an embodied internet where you’re in the experience and not just looking at it.” He then talks about how “in this future, you will be able to teleport instantly as a hologram to be at the office without a commute, at a concert with friends, or in your parents’ living room to catch up.” And then lists some of the benefits, such as less pollution and less time spent in traffic.
The easiest and most obvious way to compare is to look at how pop culture shows the metaverse. Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson, Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, and The Matrix by the Wachowskis are all examples of this “virtual, digital world that actually mirrors our own.” People who have been on the internet for a long time will remember that projects like Second Life promised to do something similar 18 years ago. Some people have said that Roblox and Fortnite, which are both games and virtual places where things happen that aren’t games, are examples of the metaverse.
Meta is clearly interested in buying Oculus as a way to expand its work in the virtual space. Sir Nick Clegg, who became Facebook’s vice president of Global Affairs and Communications in 2018 after being kicked out of politics and knighted for no reason, wrote that the metaverse is meant to give people a “greater sense of ‘virtual presence.'” The Guardian said that Clegg says he uses Meta’s virtual presence service, Horizon Workrooms, to hold “Monday morning meetings in the metaverse with a virtual table and whiteboard.” So, you might think that the metaverse won’t be much different from Zoom, except that you’ll need to buy more expensive VR gear.
The best way to understand the metaverse, according to Meta’s Technology Communications Manager in Europe, Alexandru Voica, is to think of it as “the next evolution of the internet.” He used the video call we were on as an example of something that the metaverse could hopefully make better. “We’re meeting in this 2D video call, which is better than a phone call but not as good as if we were sitting together [in the real world],” he said. “The idea is, how can you take this interaction and get it as close to you and I being together [in a public space]?” He also said that the metaverse wasn’t meant to replace real-world connections, but rather to make virtual ones feel more real.
Voica also said that technologies like VR, AR, and spatial audio will make these virtual interactions feel a lot more real. On a Zoom screen, for example, where there are a lot of boxes, it’s harder for your brain to process all of that information at once. When people in the virtual world talk to you from wherever their avatar is sitting, it’s easier to talk to them.
Some of this is related to Mark Zuckerberg’s “Next Decade” plan from the beginning of 2020, which says that improvements in AR and VR technology will make it easier for people to work from home. That was obviously before COVID-19 made remote work necessary for millions of people and before it became one of the biggest non-issues in the culture war this year.
Matthew Ball’s essay on what a metaverse is from January 2020 is also often used as a point of reference. At the time, he said that any metaverse would be a persistent and synchronized virtual environment with its own economy. Ball also said that the metaverse would let “would-be workers” take part in the “high value” economy by doing virtual work. He used Gold Farming as a current example of this “virtual labor.” Gold Farming is when players of a large MMO in a low-wage country work for hours to earn a lot of virtual currency (or goods) that they then sell to other players for real-world cash.
Ball went on to say that the metaverse would also allow “data to work together in ways that have never been done before.” A user would be able to move things freely between worlds, like taking a gun’s skin from Counter-Strike and putting it on a gun in Fortnite. To be honest, the most unbelievable thing in the document is the idea that game publishers would agree to the free sharing of their intellectual property, even though it would mean they would lose money.
But even Tim Sweeney, CEO of Epic Games, is open to the idea of some kind of cross-communication. In July of this year, Sweeney told The New York Times that there could be a “tunnel” between, say, Roblox and Fortnite. But it’s not clear what a user could take from one end of that tunnel to the other besides their own custom-made avatar.
Voica says that this cross-sharing of intellectual property (IP) will be very important for the metaverse to work. He gave the example of a user buying a designer jacket, which would be a digital item that their avatar could wear as they went about their day. That item is worthless if you can only wear it in the virtual world of the designer who made it. He said, “It would be like buying a Manchester United shirt and only being able to wear it in the stadium.” He also thinks that people wouldn’t buy into a system with so many restrictions because “people don’t want to be locked in.”
Some people also think that a metaverse will be used to talk about how the digital and real worlds come together. AR glasses that let you see a rich set of data overlaid on the street as you go about your day. This frees up your brain to do other things. That will, of course, require smart glasses with clear displays that can actually show this information in a useful way. Not to mention a huge improvement in computer vision, data processing, and battery life so that it can be used all day. This, of course, will also require a big change in how we think about privacy in public and private places, ten years after privacy concerns were raised about Google Glass.
The Washington Post talked to Sima Sistani in September. Sistani is a co-founder of Houseparty and now works for Epic Games. People said that the metaverse would replace Social Media as the thing that takes up all of our free time. Sistani thinks that people will work together more in the future than they do now, when all they do is make pictures and post status updates. And that the next generation of content creators will make new things for us to enjoy once we’ve paid for them.
One thing that seems pretty clear, at least from what people who support the metaverse say, is that the platform won’t be owned by a single person or company. Instead, it will hopefully work a lot like the internet does now, with many different companies offering infrastructure to build a single system. At least, that’s the theory, and there’s also the hope that decentralized technologies will make it less likely that one person will rule over this new frontier.
This idea is already being used by projects like Decentraland, which has its own virtual world and runs its economy on Ethereum’s blockchain. The New York Times wrote earlier this year that real-world brokers have already bought up pieces of virtual land on Decentraland’s market. Inside Decentraland, there are already art shows and casinos, all of which can be linked to some kind of digital commerce. This is sad because it goes against the idea that a metaverse could create a digital utopia after scarcity ends.
Metaverses are often talked about in popular culture less as a social good and more as a sign that society is about to fall apart. Even Ready Player One, which is full of references to the past, shows a world where the economy, society, and environment are all in bad shape. When asked about the metaverse, Evan Spiegel, the CEO of Snapchat, said that the “virtual world created by an evil monopolist” in Snow Crash was like the metaverse. Not long after that, Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter, agreed that Neal Stephenson’s book was more of a warning than a guide. [As a side note, in Snow Crash, poor people who use a public terminal to access the metaverse are shown in black and white and made fun of by the rest of society.] In the real world, Fortnite players bullied “Default” players who didn’t buy custom skins for their avatars.
Meta now believes in the metaverse enough that it has put its money and flag on the idea for the next few years. And it’s hard to believe that the platform’s metaversal goals, no matter how useful they may be, are just a way to hide the very real problems it’s facing right now. Games like Roblox and Fortnite give a vague idea of how a persistent, universal online world could keep people’s attention for thousands of hours, but those are still curated experiences. And projects like Decentraland give us an idea of how a virtual economy might work, but there isn’t yet a grand story of the metaverse that tells us where it’s going. Companies like Meta are trying to put this jigsaw together, but they don’t really know what it will look like when it’s done.