What even is the metaverse?

Oh, it's Second Life with higher-res graphics.

For most of this year, Facebook has been talking about its plans for the metaverse, pledging to lose a lot of money in order to bolster its ambitions in the space. Yesterday, the company announced that it would rebrand its corporate identity to “Meta” in order to double down on this commitment. (And, you know, the other reason.) The metaverse, as Meta describes it, “is a new phase of interconnected virtual experiences using technologies like virtual and augmented reality.” Given the number of companies who are now starting to talk about the metaverse in very real terms, we have to answer one, very obvious question: What the Hell is a metaverse?

Everything that follows is, to a certain extent, meant to be read with the right number of ahs, ahems, polite coughs and other caveats. After all, a number of companies have started using the term in order to bask in the reflected glory thrown out by the metaverse hype train. Much like “Web 2.0,” “The metaverse” has a loosey-goosey definition that is being used to define whatever is coming next for the internet. A virtual world that mirrors our own? Metaverse. A way to buy and sell NFTs of Elon Musk dressed as a dog? Metaverse. A new way of creating commerce and communications? Metaverse. It’s likely that when we look back at the metaverse a decade or two from now, should it actually happen, it’ll look vastly different to what its boosters predict.

In his Founders Letter, CEO Mark Zuckerberg describes the metaverse as “an embodied internet where you’re in the experience, not just looking at it.” He goes on to talk 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 cites the benefits of that, including a reduced carbon footprint and less time stuck in traffic.

The easiest and most obvious point of comparison is the metaverse as represented in pop culture. Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (where the term originates), Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One and the Wachowskis’ The Matrix are all examples of this virtual, digital-world-that-actually-mirrors-our-own. Those with (long) internet memories will recall projects like Second Life, which promised to do this sort of thing 18 years ago. And some folks have suggested that Roblox and Fortnite, which are both games and virtual spaces where stuff other than games takes place, are forms of metaverse.

Meta’s interest is clear as a way of building out its work in the virtual space through its acquisition of Oculus. Sir Nick Clegg, who after his political defenestration and inexplicable Knighting became Facebook’s vice president of Global Affairs and Communications in 2018, wrote that the metaverse is designed to create a “greater sense of ‘virtual presence.’” The Guardian reported that Clegg claims to use Meta’s virtual presence service, Horizon Workrooms, to take his “Monday morning meetings in the metaverse with a virtual table and whiteboard.” You may be thinking, then, that the metaverse will be little more than Zoom but with a requirement to spend more to own some pricey VR gear.

Alexandru Voica, Meta’s Technology Communications Manager in Europe, says that a better way to understand the metaverse is 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 improve. “We’re meeting in this 2D video call, and it’s great compared to a phone call but it’s 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 added that the metaverse wasn’t envisioned as supplanting real-world connections, but to make virtual experiences more lifelike.

Voica added that these virtual engagements will feel a lot more real with the use of technologies like VR, AR and spatial audio. When you have a series of boxes on a Zoom screen, for instance, it’s harder for your brain to process all of that information at once. In the virtual world, with people’s audio directed toward you from wherever their avatar is sitting, it’s easier for you to engage.

Some of this feeds back to Mark Zuckerberg’s ‘Next Decade’ manifesto from the start of 2020, where improvements in AR and VR technology will better empower remote work. Obviously that was before COVID-19 made remote work a necessity for millions of people, and before it became one of the defining culture-war non-issues this year.

Another common frame of reference is Matthew Ball’s essay on what a metaverse is from January 2020. At the time, he said that any metaverse would be a persistent and synchronous virtual environment with its own economy. Ball added that the metaverse would enable “would-be laborers” to “participate in the ‘high value’ economy via virtual labor.” He cited the practice of Gold Farming — where players of a large MMO in a low-wage country works for hours to earn large amounts of virtual currency (or goods) which they then sell on to other players for real-world cash — as a current example of this “virtual labor.”

SUN VALLEY, IDAHO - JULY 08: CEO of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg walks to lunch following a session at the Allen & Company Sun Valley Conference on July 08, 2021 in Sun Valley, Idaho. After a year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the world’s most wealthy and powerful businesspeople from the media, finance, and technology worlds will converge at the Sun Valley Resort for the exclusive week-long conference. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)
Kevin Dietsch via Getty Images

Ball went on to say that the metaverse would also offer “unprecedented interoperability of data.” A user would be able to move objects freely between worlds, like being able to take a skin for a gun in Counter-Strike and carry it over to Fortnite. To be honest, the idea that games publishers would agree to the free-sharing of their intellectual property, with all the lost profits that would entail, is the most unbelievable idea in the document.

But even Epic Games’ CEO Tim Sweeney is open to the idea of some cross-communication in some form or another. This July, Sweeney told The New York Times that said a “tunnel” could exist between, in this example, the virtual worlds of Roblox and Fortnite. What’s not clear, however, is what a user could take from one end of that tunnel to the other beyond their own, custom-designed avatar.

Voica says that this cross-sharing of IP will be vital to ensuring the success of the metaverse. He used the example of a user buying a designer jacket, as a digital item which could be worn by their avatar as they went about their day. That item doesn’t have any value if you’re only able to wear it in the specific designer’s own virtual world. “It would be like buying a Manchester United shirt and only being able to wear it inside Manchester United’s stadium,” he said. And he believes that consumers wouldn’t buy into a system with such a limitation, saying that “people don’t want to be locked in.”

There’s also a line of thinking that a metaverse will actually describe the unification of the digital and real worlds. AR glasses that overlay a rich data set onto the street as you go about your day, outsourcing tasks from your own brain. That will, naturally, require smart glasses with transparent displays capable of actually reproducing this data in a useful manner. Not to mention a quantum leap in computer vision, data processing and battery life to make it viable for whole-day use. This, of course, will also require a dramatic shift in how we view privacy in public and private spaces a decade on from the privacy objections raised when Google Glass was briefly en vogue.

This September, The Washington Post interviewed Sima Sistani, the co-founder of Houseparty who now works for Epic Games. They said that the metaverse would be the thing that replaces Social Media to suck away all of our free time. Sistani believes that, unlike now, where people simply create images and post status updates, the next generation will enjoy collaborative experiences with one another. And that the next generation of content creators will create fresh experiences for the rest of us to enjoy, once we’ve paid for them.

One of the things that is kinda/sorta clear, at least from the metaverse’s boosters, is that the platform won’t be owned by a single person or company. Instead, it will — hopefully — operate much like the internet does now, with multiple providers offering infrastructure to build a cohesive whole. Or at least, that’s the theory, and there’s the additional hope that decentralized technologies will help reduce the potential for a single arbiter to rule over this new frontier.

Projects like Decentraland, its own virtual environment, are already working on this principle, with its economy running on Ethereum’s blockchain. As The New York Times reported earlier this year, Decentraland’s market has already seen real-world brokers buying up parcels of virtual real estate. And there are already art shows and casinos in operation inside Decentraland, all of which can be tied to some form of digital commerce. This is sadly at-odds with the potential for a post-scarcity digital utopia that a metaverse could theoretically foster.

Pop-culture descriptions of metaverses commonly present them less as a social good and more as a symptom of impending collapse. Even the reference onanism that is Ready Player One shows a world that has slid into economic, social and environmental decline. When asked about the metaverse, Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel cited Snow Crash’s “virtual world created by an evil monopolist.” Not long after, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey agreed that Neal Stephenson’s novel was intended as a warning, rather than a guide. [An aside, in Snow Crash, poor users accessing the metaverse through a public terminal are rendered in monochrome, and are derided by the wider society as a consequence — something that was replicated in the real-world by Fortnite players who bullied “Default” players who didn’t buy custom skins for their avatars.]

Now, Meta believes enough in the metaverse that it’s hoisted its flag, and fortune, to the idea for the next few years. And it’s hard to think that, however convenient, its metaversal ambitions are a smokescreen for the very real issues the platform is currently facing. Titles like Roblox and Fortnite provide a vague sense of how a persistent, universal online world could hold the attention of users for thousands of hours, but those are for now curated experiences. And projects like Decentraland offer a hint as to how a virtual economy would function, but nothing yet gives us a cohesive grand narrative of the metaverse which can show us where it’s going. In many ways, companies like Meta are trying to put together this jigsaw without much of an idea of what it’s going to look like when it’s finished.