There are currently two basic attitudes to Metaverse in the world: either it is star-eyed fascination or complete distancing and mocking the phenomenon.
I would dare to say that the considerable reach and altitude the discussion get right now, Zuckerberg’s choice of changing the name from Facebook Inc. to Meta Inc. and all the money that is currently being put into trying to understand, create and build the new shiny thing hasn’t been around since .. we started talking about social media. I might be hesitant to the evangelistic part of Metaverse but not against it: both because it fascinates me and based on the experience of things that seems most crazy is actually things that will work.
I am no stranger to the idea of a place, a seamless merging of the Internet and the physical. One of my first lectures was at Facebook Garage in Stockholm, and I think it was sometime in 2007, in the fall. I was talking about what I thought we would see in the future — a social Internet based on a more individualistic approach and more spatial ways of constructing and living in it. I spoke about our accounts becoming a kind of “houses” where we can collect our things and invite friends on different levels. Very virtual.
I was inspired by Second Life and the early virtual rooms created in the early ’00s. As a behavioural scientist, I believe that “space” — in a spatial sense — is something humans need to feel safe and creative, and that the individual is the one who really is the one who controls both his own creations and who he wants to invite. What I envisioned still aren’t realised, but we see chards of it already in many ways.
Social media has happened. And crypto-economy. Blockchain. AR is on a roll, and VR has had at least two additional hype curves. The phones we had back then and what I carry today are like comparing a rowing boat to a battleship. Google Glass and other various more or less well-thought-out experiments with hardware have been around. We can dismiss it as coincidences, but they play well into the Metaverse vision.
So, where are we today? Is this a moonshot, an attempt by Facebook to make people forget their privacy blunders, or is it actually the next iteration of the Internet?
The basis of digitisation is not technology. It is behaviour. And the will to create something for someone else. It’s culture and something as simple as habits. We will not generally be digitised or get customers, users, etc., to fully embrace the digital without transforming it into a seamless section of the physical world, which creates values that exceed what can be obtained traditionally and physically.
This summer, I read Snowcrash. I am fascinated by how it has influenced so much of what we see today. In the early nineties, Neal Stephenson fantasised about something within our grasp today.
But why would VR and AR work today when they have not worked before? It is a relevant question and, at the same time, a rather uninteresting question: in many ways, technology is not an end but a means.
For what exactly is Metaverse? What are we talking about?
Today one could say is that Metaverse is an idea of the next iteration of the Internet but also already here: social media and not least social games are forms of Metaverse where our social interaction from physical life interacts with our interactions digitally. The game Fortnite is considered a forerunner in many ways. Social shopping, where e-commerce has moved into social media platforms, is another early form of a Metaverse. The trend to buy digital works of art in the form of NFTs (Non-Fungible Tokens) has been going on for the past year, and the number of cryptocurrencies starting to become unmanageable. We must not forget Pokémon Go, which in many ways made it normal to experience digital excitement in the physical space. The nowadays badly mocked Clubhouse might be Metaverse’s own Myspace: a new way of thinking about social interaction with a new medium: the voice. In the same way that Myspace was a forerunner in social media, we can probably see Clubhouse as the first spark in the new universe.
In its top layer and as general functionality, Metaverse is about a digital space where people, brands and others can create experiences that the user can activate. It is much more individual-based and built around the user rather than based on a static web page. Basically, a world is created where the individuals create their context — not the other way around. It is easy to see TikTok as something passive where users only consume, but among the young people who use TikTok, an incredible number also participate by creating content.
But there’s much more needed. A Metaverse requires many features that today are beginning to crystallise: an economic system, an infrastructure, people who create new experiences for users, sufficiently developed technical solutions and a mindset among the users. With blockchain technology, crypto-technology, VR- and AR-technology now starting to become both cheap and meaningful, and large structured infrastructures (Google, Facebook etc.) and not least the impact of social media, the stage is set in many ways.
So most people basically will watch Metaverse as the following form of the Internet — a more active and less text-based (and thus passive) format that can be experienced and used with all senses with various technical aids. Seamlessly joined and accessible in different ways. In the same way that the Internet once was felt as sci-fi, but today is used by more than half of the earth’s population, we should recognise Metaverse differently. Today nothing that directly will affect the majority but where more and more people come into contact with elements of it.
The possibilities are difficult to assess so far because we do not really know what Metaverse will be. At the same time, one can then see the possibilities as endless.
The development of the Internet is inevitable. We have had many “jumps”: web 1.0, which were the original websites, static and with little opportunity for interaction, to web 2.0, which added social and other interactive functions, and now web 3.0, where we, in many ways, leave the text-based communication.
We already see opportunities for cultural workers and experience-based service companies, and today everything from car companies and brokers has adopted some digital ways. A more secure and completely digital form of distributing payments and rights also creates conditions for new markets and opportunities for both investment and profit. We already saw on Second Life (which is entirely based on Stephenson’s book and tried to build a Meta universe already in the early 2000s) where companies popped up that sold digital furniture and clothes etc. We see it today in Fortnite and other games. A new market, digital tangibles. For some hard to grasp. For others, a way of creating a new set of income streams.
What are the concerns regarding Metaverse? The danger in the short term can be about the hype itself: many companies and initiatives that are difficult to assess in terms of sustainability and efficiency. Some will survive; others have just jumped on the hype. We will see a lot of snake oil sellers trying to sell things with a “metaverse”-tag on it.
There is also a risk that the expectations we have today of Metaverse as an open and decentralised digital universe will become just a dream, and we will get an even more centralised Internet for several companies. That Facebook, or now Meta, focuses so strongly on Metaverse is obviously worrying for many observers, and it is not desirable for tech companies to gain even more power over our everyday lives, both as individuals and as a society.
Then there are technical concerns: the more involved we become in digital systems with everything from our money to our health data, the more vulnerable we become. Crypto- and blockchain are seen as secure, but in the end, there is always an opportunity to hack into digital systems.
The conclusion must still be that it is hardly a transient hype; just like the Internet and social media, we will live with Metaverse.
Sure — it’s almost a bit ridiculous that everyone suddenly talks about Metaverse. Without thinking about whether we are longing for something new, something that is not as clear as the Internet we know today and social media, we are beginning to understand.
The strength of this is about the same as when people made fun of social media. We will not see the benefit or even understand the impact until many years from now. For me, however, it is pretty straightforward: the magnitude of those who say that Metaverse will not be anything and the anxiety about it shows that it is already for real.
It is here it begins. A new phase of the development of the Internet will change what we know. Welcome to Metaverse.
Read more and make your own opinion:
Follow Building the Metaverse on Medium https://link.medium.com/ax0whV4kilb and read all the good reviews of high and low. Wunderman Thompson has tried to define Metauniverse https://www.wundermanthompson.com/insight/defining-the-metaverse and also delve a little more https://www.com / insight / building-the-metaverse. Skeptics are of course available https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/aug/10/techies-think-were-on-the-cusp-of-a-virtual-world-called-the-metaverse-im-skeptical
The BBC does a review for ordinary people https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-58749529 Verge has taken its starting point in the two works of fiction that lie and sway in this: Ready Player One and Snowcrash https://www.theverge.com/22701104/metaverse-explained-fortnite-roblox-facebook-horizon Forbes has chosen to look at the phenomena that already exist today: https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbestechcouncil/2021/10/22/the-metaverse-is-all-around-you---did-you-know/ Engadget tries to explain it https://www.engadget.com/facebook-metaverse-meta-explained-or-not-120032885.html The Atlantic lets Ian Bogost’s scepticism flow, but the article is exciting and well written https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2021/10/facebook-metaverse-name-change/620449/
Photo: https://unsplash.com/@ryoji\_\_iwata and the author.