No Place for the Metaverse

Written on February 19, 2022

My own confidence in this post: 70%

Recently a friend lent me his copy of Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel, Snow Crash, and upon reading I discovered the novel coined the term Metaverse. Given that in the novel, the Metaverse exists against a dystopian backdrop, I was surprised that Facebook, a company that should be doing everything in its power to convince people it hasn’t already created a dystopia, is rebranding itself around the concept.

A couple months ago I watched Zuck’s pitch for the Metaverse with friends and half of us thought it was obviously a thing nobody would want to sign up for, and the other half were scared facebook would be monopolising the future of social interactions. Notably, none of us had any interest in signing up ourselves. If a Metaverse beta came out tomorrow, I would not suffer any FOMO from passing on it.

I contend that nobody will want to sign up to the Metaverse, as pitched by Facebook. Let me explain why.

What is the Metaverse

First let’s agree on what the Metaverse is. From wikipedia:

A Metaverse is a network of 3D virtual worlds focused on social connection. In futurism and science fiction, the term is often described as a hypothetical iteration of the Internet as a single, universal virtual world that is facilitated by the use of virtual and augmented reality headsets.

There are four ingredients here:

  1. 3D virtual worlds
  2. …glued together in some network
  3. …powered by network effects
  4. …faciliated by VR/AR

I would also add a fourth ingredient which the Facebook pitch hinted at, which is: 5) emphasis on user-generated content (UCG)

It strikes me that we already have some products out there which closely fit the bill. Minecraft has VR support and user-generated content (albeit with limited freedom). Roblox provides for much richer user-generated content and Second Life is probably the closest thing we’ve had to an actual Metaverse, though it has no VR support and its successor Sansar which does utilise VR was unsuccessful. If Second life is our best known candidate for a metaverse, it should be concerning that at its peak it only reached 90k concurrent users and I don’t directly know anybody who’s played it.

UCG Freedom Spectrum

Freedom and variation in user-generated content exists on a spectrum. On one end of the spectrum you have World of Warcraft with no UCG: the designers craft the experience for you and the consistency of that experience is part of the draw. Then you have Minecraft with UCG in the form of putting blocks together to build things, and some mod-ability on top. Then you have Roblox and Second Life where you have truly unique worlds with their own rules with user-generated assets. And finally you reach the other end of the spectrum with the App Store and Steam: places where the users (i.e. publishers) can upload basically whatever app they want.

No matter where you are on the spectrum, you have an identity. In WoW you’ve got a character with their own name, appearance, gear, loot, spells, skills, guild, house, etc. The things that make your character unique are just as applicable in one region of the map as another. In Second Life you’ve got an avatar for which you buy accessories, animations, items, etc, and although there are more options for accessorising your avatar (or embellishing your house) it’s mostly cosmetic compared to WoW. As you keep dialing up the freedom in the UCG, you’re left with a fairly stripped down identity. In steam you have a name and profile picture that will appear in multiplayer games, as well as some achievements which don’t carry meaning across games.

Finding Meaning In A Virtual World

In his Awakening From The Meaning Crisis lecture series John Vervaeke talks about the agent-arena relationship and how a consonance between the agent and the arena (e.g. the WoW character and the server) leads to a sense of meaning, whereas a lack of that consonance feels ‘absurd’. When you play WoW, that consonance is deep because the whole world has been designed around the character and their spells, skills, etc. I created a Second Life account to get a feel for it so that I get a sense of what the metaverse might be, and I can safely say the entire experience felt absurd, and predictably I have not felt the urge to play it again. I suspect my experience is typical and that only a fraction of new Second Life players find the consonance that keeps them engaged. When you play a steam game, you may feel a strong consonance between your character and the particular game, but you won’t feel much consonance between your steam profile and the game given how little role your steam profile plays beyond easily joining a multiplayer lobby with friends. It seems to me that in order for the Metaverse to be a Metaverse, you need to simultaneously exhibit a wild variety of worlds without sacrificing the consonance between your Metaverse identity and any given world.

It should be no surprise then that VR/AR is always bundled into the pitch: the hope is that more immersive hardware can inject that consonance that is otherwise lacking. I don’t buy it. Let’s say that immersive technology advances so much that I can directly plug my brain into an immersion machine. Would I even be interested in the Metaverse then? No: I’d probably want to go and inhabit an identity that makes sense within a particular world. But now we’re back to WoW (or some Steam game), just with a pleasure machine thown in.

Conclusion

So in conclusion, I see the Metaverse as an ill-conceived project. We already have great worlds we can inhabit that exist in isolation from other worlds. We already have networks of worlds with a shallow identity that can be carried between them. I do believe that more immersive technology is going to revolutionise how we live our lives, but even then, I don’t see a meaningful place for the Metaverse. I’m interested to see if Facebook can throw enough money at the problem to produce something people actually want to experience, but as far as I can see, the Metaverse itself is an agent that does not fit the arena, and in Vervaeke’s terms, I consider the concept absurd.

Revision

I recently talked to a friend, making the above contention, and they told me about how some of their lectures were being held in Roblox. I watched some example youtube vids and didn’t really see the appeal (in fact I found the fidgeting of a particular audience member to be highly distracting). It reminded me of our attempts to make legal studies fun back in highschool by writing notes within a minecraft world, but little did I know at the time, it was impossible to make highschool legal studies fun.

Though he made a good point that although being in a virtual world, looking at a virtual blackboard doesn’t actually improve the absorption of knowledge, sharing virtual space with your colleagues does have a real psychological benefit. If you bump into a friend’s 3D avatar and watch a lecture while standing next to eachother in the virtual space, that enriches the educational experience with a social layer on top.

So it sounds like Roblox, rather than Second Life, is the better exemplar of a metaverse, and given that two thirds of American kids have a Roblox account, maybe there is a demand there which FB could capitalise on. I still can’t shake the feeling that until we reach the pleasure machine phase of immersive experience I’m going to see most metaversal stuff as gimmicky. Every time a teacher back in higschool or uni wanted to spice things up educationally it always felt like a waste of time to me and I’ve learnt that I prefer as few bells and whistles in my educational experiences as possible. But of course, the metaverse is not just targeting education.

Let’s assume that there is a demand for the kind of Metaverse that Roblox currently intimates: could FB actually gain market share? FB is despised by a great many people, and Roblox has the existing user base and content. Roblox game creators already complain of there being too much competition and finding it impossible to have anybody play their games. You might then think that plenty of game creators would move to FB’s Metaverse, but I don’t see why any consumers would make the jump. Right now YouTube content creators are struggling to get eyeballs, but that doesn’t mean that all of a sudden Vimeo is encroaching on YT’s turf in any meaningful way.

Part of why it’s so hard to think through these questions is that the Metaverse is still such a vague concept because as soon as somebody says exactly what they’re going to do, it will invite criticism. I also find the use of the term ‘The Metaverse’ to be misleading. I don’t see a single Metaverse rising to victory at the end of all this: I expect various Roblox clones competing for market share. And even then, the term ‘Metaverse’ feels like a stretch.