The idea of a metaverse captured the imagination of many a young geek after reading the early works of William Gibson and Neal Stephenson. IRC allowed us to chat with fellow computer enthusiasts around the globe in real-time. The web came along and added graphics to the stream of information entering our homes via crackles and beeps at 14,400 bits a second.
Finally, when MUDs morphed into MMORPGs the digital future of our sci-fi fantasies seemed to be within reach.
And then progress stagnated as the World Wide Web went 2.0. Citizens became consumers. The creativity of MySpace yielded to the bureaucratic blandness of Facebook and the disco-colored love-letters to our favorite things devolved into diatribes magnified and multiplied and manipulating us in the name of engagement–the currency of the 21st century.
This is FAANG’s world. We just live in it.
One of the common plot points of those early cyberpunk novels is global conglomerates breaking down borders and becoming increasingly intertwined in our daily lives. Power taken from the people–and their respective governments–and delivered to the Savile Row suits talking on cable news networks about building a better world (for whom?).
Ever pay for Pizza Hut with Apple Pay? The cyberpunk future is now–only the suits on CNN have been replaced by Patagonia vests giving TED talks.
In those stories the metaverse is an alternative reality you plug into and become your digital alter ego whether that be a sword-wielding martial artist or a rainbow bear. You embody your aspirations rather than the carefully sculpted consumer that society wants you to be.
That distinction is what has me hopeful.
Creativity is dead. Long live creativity!
For the last twenty years we have lived in the high-school hallway of social media where we sacrificed our individual creativity at the alter of upvotes. What we like is what we pray our friends like. Every meal is made for Instagram and every comment for the echo chamber.
It feels like that is changing. The social network du jour–TikTok–seems to encourage creativity in ways that Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter do not. While Reddit certainly has a hive mind there is plenty of celebration of every niche feature and fetish of humanity.
If the multiverse is a digital place where our digital selves (in whatever form our avatar or image may be) interact in both work and play then it has to be one where I am I, you are you, and neither of us is a faceless sim paying $60 for a blue hoodie from the digital Gap in Zuckerberg Plaza.
I would rather be clothless than soulless.
What is the Metaverse
The metaverse is a digital realm where we can work, play, and have social interactions as a character of our own creation. There are four key ingredients:
- Individuality (I can name myself and dress myself)
- Privacy (my real-world identity is hidden and my conversations with friends and employers is private rather than public)
- Economy (ability for my digital avatar to be hired and paid)
- Permanence (what happens stays happened)
What I can’t do is define exactly how that is different from the Internet as it stands today. It can be argued that all of those exist:
- I can pick my own social media handles and profile pictures.
- If I am careful about what I say and where I log in from then my digital profile cannot be tied to me. Direct messages and emails are somewhat private and would be completely private if encryption wasn’t such a PITA.
- If 2020 has taught us anything it is that you can work with anyone from anywhere for many types of work. If I needn’t be on Zoom and was paid in Bitcoin then this would be effectively possible.
- The post-truth debate (where we can’t even agree on what happened) aside, this is still a challenge. The companies that run private social networks can delete rows from a database and posts will disappear into the ether. Archive.org stores what they can but can’t get to everything. Perhaps there is a block-chain based solution that solves this one.
Building a better world
The corporations that are purposely trying to create the metaverse are going to be the ones that fail to do so. Facebook with Oculus–like Google with Glass and Snapchat with Spectacles–is just looking to add a third dimension to their walled garden which benefits shareholders rather than users.
Nobody is thrilled about the possibility of taking all of the enjoyment of their too-many-a-day Zoom meetings and holding them in a Sims-style conference room. Fortnite would be a more exciting venue but would not pass the corporate censors. Minecraft and Roblox are the games rather than the games within the game. (I might be wrong on this one.)
Gather is taking steps towards building a product that could be used for both a morning stand-up as well as an evening fantasy football draft. It seems to erring on the safe side of Second Life.
Reddit probably has a skunkworks project where they are adding 3D avatars to their chat feature but needs to come up with a better system for personal, and private, interaction. I see no reason why we can’t convert Reddit Gold to Bitcoin to fund transactions online and offline (at least in El Salvador).
Discord is my dark horse favorite to evolve into the metaverse. It has organic traction within corporate walls and hobby communities. It feels more fun and personal than Slack while having the breadth in discussion topics and adoption for everyone to find their niche.
The question would be, does Discord add features to allow you to build an app on top of Discord, or do you incorporate Discord into your app?
Keeping it real
If your inbox is overflowing with emails from attractive women offering a way for you to save money on your car insurance then you ain’t seen nothing yet. The metaverse will be overflowing with bots (or NPCs for you gamers) looking to sell you conspiracy theories and multi-level marketing opportunities.
These bots will probably perform much of the basic functions in a metaverse as far as any signup process or walkthroughs needed. Your virtual barista will be the equivalent of a website chat widget. However, enterprising programmers will certainly push the boundaries of our comfort with AI interactions.
In a fantasy world does it matter if someone is real?