Facebook’s, I mean, Meta’s recent rebrand and investments, triggered a new wave of interest in the metaverse. It’s all over headlines, corporate news, memes, gaming platforms, and social media. The word’s increased ubiquity is creating an impending sense of doom, as if, at any moment, our physical lives will be engulfed in corporate pixels and paywalled interactions. But Fortnite and Roblox have also been hyping up the metaverse for some time now and the term itself is actually decades old.
So what is the metaverse exactly?
Mark Zuckerburg’s version conjures an image of virtual everything: You attend work meetings as an avatar using the Quest VR headset and use a device on your wrist to secretly text friends.When you go outside, you’ll wear smart glasses that offer an augmented reality as well as record what you see and hear. The metaverse will be accessible through phones, computers, wearable tech, and headsets (or a combination of these) and it will be where you work, shop, exercise, socialize, watch movies, and game.
But the term long predates many of the technologies that could actually make it possible. The suffix meta- means “behind or beyond,” it can also mean “more comprehensive” and even “transformative” (like metamorphosis). The second half of the word, –verse, derives from the word “universe” and describes either a specific sphere or area (like Twitterverse) or a fictional world, like the omegaverse (sorry!), a speculative alternative universe literary genre known to organize characters into alphas, betas, and omegas. As a whole, the word “metaverse” generally refers to a virtual world that lies beyond, on top of, or is an extension of the physical world.
The word was coined in a 1992 dystopian sci-fi novel, Snow Crash, written by Neal Stephenson. In the book, the Metaverse is the sum of virtual and augmented realities concentrated on a super long “Street” through which people walk as avatars and can access using goggles and plugging into terminals. Public terminal users are rendered as blurry black and white avatars while those who pay for private terminals are rendered in full color and detail. Since then, the word “metaverse” has been used to describe all kinds of initiatives focused on creating a more permanent virtual reality that bleeds into our physical lives.
People have been trying to create immersive virtual worlds as early as the 1960s, a pursuit powered by the world-building efforts of both the film and video game industries. One of the most-cited examples of metaverse is Second Life, an alt-reality computer game where you play through an avatar and could do just about anything — like build a house or get married — was created in 2003. It was such a real world it had a thriving kink scene – it doesn’t get more real than that. By 2006, there were enough serious metaverse enthusiasts to gather them for a summit.
‘Second Life’ on a computer screen from 2005. Credit: Los Angeles Times Via Getty Imag
That summit created the Metaverse Roadmap, a project that mapped the path to completing the metaverse. The Metaverse Roadmap defines the metaverse as, “the convergence of virtually-enhanced physical reality and [a] physically persistent virtual space.” In other words, it could look like a second world layered over the one we know through the use of augmented reality in addition to a virtual space we can come in-and-out-of, like the video game in Spy Kids 3. Think Snapchat filters or that Google feature that lets you see life-size 3D models of animals. The Metaverse Roadmap explains that, “the Metaverse wouldn’t be the entirety of the Internet–but like the Web, it would be seen by many as the most important part.”
We’ve seen a few rounds of metaverse hype throughout the years, but many of today’s evangelists will insist that for the first time ever, we have the technology, protocols, and infrastructure to step on the gas and make it real. They say it’s the next step after the mobile internet. The metaverse asks the big “what if” about combining virtual reality, augmented reality, Zoom meetings, social networks, crypto, NFT’s, online shopping, and wearable tech, artificial intelligence, 5G, and more. They say it’s the future! The future is inevitable, so it has to be good, right?
For the most part, many of the people exalting the virtues of the metaverse and insisting it’s the logical next step, are Silicone Valley voices, futurists (the Metaverse Roadmap’s John Smart) and all kinds of actors with financial stakes in the fruition of the metaverse. Mark Zuckerberg is definitely one of them, and so is Matthew Ball, a venture capitalist –and prolific writer– who has given us one of the more useful definitions of the metaverse and will soon publish a book on the topic.
…an expansive network of persistent, real-time rendered 3D worlds and simulations.”
According to Ball, the metaverse is “an expansive network of persistent, real-time rendered 3D worlds and simulations.” Ball’s metaverse should be able to maintain the continuity of identity, objects, history, payments, and can be experienced by an unlimited number of people at the same time, in which everyone will have their own sense of presence. Here, the metaverse is an immersive virtual reality that allows users to be present, it’s a persistent space where blockchain technology could be used to pay for items we can bring with us through different experiences: Imagine being able to wear the Sandy Liang fleece you got in Animal Crossing on your Twitter and Instagram profile pictures. Ball’s metaverse is constantly expanding and learning.
An avatar of Mark Zuckerberg in his version of the metaverse. Credit: Bloomberg Via Getty Images
Zuckerberg’s metaverse is very much influenced by Ball’s. In his Facebook Connect presentation, Zuckerberg’s avatar moved from platform to platform, wearing the same black t-shirt demonstrating a “continuity of identity and objects.” With nearly 3 billion Facebook users, Zuckerberg’s metaverse is well on its way to hosting an unlimited number of people. And during his presentation, Zuckerberg repeatedly assured us how each feature of the metaverse would establish a “sense of presence.”
Today, Roblox and Epic Games’ Fortnite are often roped into metaverse conversations and some say are way closer to making the metaverse happen than Zuckerberg’s Meta. Both games meet the criteria of being persistent virtual worlds, they each have millions of players that gather to both play and socialize, where there is some persistence in objects (clothes and skins) and payment (Robux and V-Bucks). Fortnite‘s Ariana Grande concert event was attended by millions and along with customizable avatars and emotes, these events are fostering some sense of “presence.”
The most important thing to know is that the metaverse is not real.
The most important thing to know is that the metaverse is not real. Zuckerberg has made it very clear that for him, the metaverse is a goal and for many investors, engineers, academics, and futurists, it’s been a long-time goal. But Zuckerberg’s plan was not well-received, people hate it, and there is zero faith in Meta’s metaverse’s potential to do anything but immeasurable damage to the point of calling it a dystopian mess. The metaverse is an idea – for some an exciting one and for others a very scary one.
Rhizome, a nonprofit art organization leading efforts to archive digital art and culture, held a conference called Welcome to the Metaverse, in which artist David Rudnick noted that, “the notion of the metaverse is the ultimate centralization” something that runs in stark counter to so many of the hopes of democratization we once had for the internet. Rudnick notes, “when you hear people talk about the dream of the emergent metaverse, they’re really talking about a space where you’ll be able to do everything [in a virtual world],” a commercial public space, “that can derive value or some sort of ownership from all the interactions that take place on the platform.”
At their core, fears and concerns about the metaverse are ultimately concerns about scale. Any expansion of the virtual world is liable to amplify its more harmful attributes. What would it mean for so many essential interactions to be mediated by a handful of for-profit companies? If Meta’s current dominance over social media is any indication, it doesn’t inspire much hope.
Historically, governments are notoriously slow at understanding much less regulating technological developments. Can a government that’s embarrassingly confused about what a finsta is be counted on to make the metaverse safe, ethical, and sustainable? What would be the human and environmental costs of pursuing this and what are the benefits?
For now, the metaverse is mostly the hope of a few, a speculation, a fantasy with many gaps to let the chill winds of the unknown to blow through.
Michelle Santiago Cortés is an internet culture reporter and critic. You can follow her on Twitter.