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The “metaverse” reappears in the headlines. Mark Zuckerberg recently announced that Facebook “will effectively go from … being a social media company to being a metaverse company.” Facebook plans to create “an embodied Internet,” powered by its Oculus headphones and connecting the company’s platforms in virtual space. And Facebook isn’t alone, as Epic Games, Disney and other corporations also invest billions in their virtual worlds.
Is this metaverse talk exciting? For sure. Is it new? Hardly.
The term metaverse is almost 40 years old. Coined by science fiction author Neal Stephenson in his 1992 novel Snow Crash, the metaverse was his name for the convergence of physical reality and virtual space. The idea was a shared, persistent environment that blurred digital and physical for everyone who entered. This concept is as appealing today as it was in 1992, but why are big game and technology players rediscovering the metaverse today?
The generational change that drives great technologies to the metaverse
My son just turned 11 and among his gifts was a small cash gift from his grandfather. Since he was free to burn his birthday money for anything he wanted, he couldn’t wait to see what he would buy. Imagine my reaction when he decided to buy new skins for his Call of Duty avatar. Pixels represented on a screen? Really? I gently asked if I was sure I wanted to buy something digital that couldn’t be removed from the PC. Without hesitation, he replied “Yes!” And once he bought and added his new skins for the game, he wanted to show it to me, his mom, his siblings … and of course everyone he played with online.
I tell this story to illustrate the generational change that drove the rediscovery of the Big Tech metaverse: younger people are more than willing to pay real money for completely virtual items. And it’s not just kids and teens: the explosion of interest in non-consumable tokens (NFTs) represents the adult version of unique virtual goods with real cash value. While NFTs can be basically anything digital, they are usually art or digital memories like Jack Dorsey’s first tweet (which sold for $ 3 million).
So why are all these digital products worth real money to their buyers? The same reason my son wanted to show off his bright new pixels to everyone who listened: the value of digital products comes from as many people as possible seeing that you have them. Put in terms that my previous generation might understand, you don’t buy a Ferrari because you need to get places quickly. You buy a Ferrari because it looks amazing and you want to look amazing in it. Without a bewildering crowd of spectators, it’s just a fast (and expensive!) Car, not the status symbol that should be made.
What Facebook doesn’t understand about the metaverse
The growing real-world value of digital articles helps explain why metaverse is back in vogue, but we need to remember that the basis of the value of these digital articles is social. Without a large audience contemplating your avatar or NFT skins, these items are just invisible pixels on the screen. And to maximize the audience of digital products, the metaverse must be open and cross-platform. Otherwise, these digital products are like a Ferrari buried under the rubbish in your garage.
This need for an open, cross-platform experience is why Facebook’s metaverse initiatives will fail. Everything Facebook does is within a closed experience controlled by its engineers and administrators. Even if you want to use Oculus headphones to access a third-party virtual reality app, you need to sign in with a Facebook account. I understand why the company does this, as its vital blood is free access to user data. Zuckerberg probably sees this metaverse expansion as a way to more fully immerse his user base on Facebook and get even more data and dollars from it.
However, Facebook’s top-down control ethic is exactly the opposite of what a thriving metavers need. Imagine the reactions of people like my son who want to show off new skins for their metaverse avatars, only to discover that their friends outside of Facebook can’t see them and would only get responses from Facebook’s custom echo chamber. Depending on the history of Facebook, it can be assumed that the company will always prioritize a tightly controlled environment over an open metaverse. In short, do we really want a metaverse of Facebook or someone else’s property?
Imagine a better metaverse
I’m not writing this to join the online stack that criticizes Facebook’s metaverse vision, but because I’m legitimately excited about the potential of metaverse technology. My company has a lot of clients who create virtual reality and augmented reality applications. I’ve seen first hand how appealing it can be to put a head screen on a HoloLens to do engineering work or add RA targets to hit them during a trip on an electric scooter. I’ve also seen how sad and isolating an empty virtual world can be when there is no one other than internal testers.
As we imagine a better metaverse, here are three basic principles you should have:
- The metaverse is open, not closed. The more cross-platform and inclusive our digital worlds are for everyone interested in experiencing them, the richer and more attractive they will be.
- The metaverse is an expansion of the physical world, not a retreat. While I enjoyed the movie “Ready Player One,” there are many more promises in a metaverse that brings new meaning to our shared physical existence than one that encourages us to play virtual reality games within a dark and closed room.
- The metaverse should connect people, not divide them. For an open and inclusive platform to work, it needs a strong community that attracts and welcomes people, while actively resisting trolls and other bad actors trying to provoke dissent.
As younger generations adopt a more digital world and drive investment in the metaverse, I don’t want to be an old, skeptical man who misses out on fun. Instead, I want companies like mine to take their responsibility to make this new world the best it can be. Instead of building just one metaverse that we can control and reap benefits, we make one that is better than the world we have now: open, expansive, and connected.
Jerod Venema is the founder and CEO of the real-time video communication company LiveSwitch, which has UPS, Match.com, Bosch and WWE among its customers.
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