“We’re at the beginning of the next chapter for the internet, and it’s the next chapter for our company too,” says Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in a founder’s letter announcing the company’s rebranding to Meta. So what drives this new change? To him, it’s the desire to guide humanity into the metaverse, a virtual universe where people are fully immersed in the experience.

Since Zuckerberg’s announcement, tech companies worldwide have also joined the race in entering the metaverse. Although the term is almost as old as the internet itself, Zuckerberg’s announcement has sparked curiosity. What is the metaverse? Does it exist already?

What is the metaverse?

Coming to an accepted definition of the metaverse seems just as complicated as asking someone in the early 1980s what the Internet would be in forty years. We don’t know what shape it will take, but we do know what its key attributes should be

A metaverse is a space that continues indefinitely and occurs in real-time. Metaverses are fully functional economies that allow individuals and businesses to create and profit from anything the system deems valuable. Because it functions as a world of its own, users may populate it with as many experiences as they wish.

People think a metaverse is a video game, a virtual reality headset, or a virtual world. Although all of these may have some elements of metaverses, they aren’t one in the strict sense. Instead, a metaverse is an experience you can walk into and address all of your needs. It is, without a doubt, something a lot bigger than what we can now imagine.

Welcome to the metaverse

The term “metaverse” first appeared in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel Snow Crash, but it was also present in Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One (2011). Most people embrace Cline’s vision, in which people have access to a virtual world through a connecting device – in the novel’s case, it’s a visor and haptic gloves.  Metaverses, in fiction, offer a new frontier where people rewrite social norms and value systems. They are, in a sense, a virtual refuge. 

Metaverses are often part of dystopian worlds in film and literature. Let’s think of Philip K. Dick’s story “The Minority Report” (1956) or, to a certain extent, Ubik (1969). Science fiction films such as Tron (1982) and The Matrix (1999) are considered early depictions of metaverses. However, we don’t have to resort to science fiction all the time.

Nowadays, metaverses revolve around virtual experiences that combine new technologies to reshape the future of the internet. However, to some experts, the earliest versions of metaverses are videogames, specifically those that offer the creation of an avatar in an alternate world. An excellent example of this is Fortnite, a popular defense-style game launched by Epic Games in 2017. However, it was initially not thought of as a metaverse. Both fans and creators began using the term as the game became a global phenomenon.

Are we there yet?

Will there be a clean transition into the metaverse? At which point will people be able to acknowledge they are living in it? According to Matthew Ball, a venture capitalist, the metaverse won’t come directly into existence because of the countless new technologies, protocols, and discoveries that need to emerge first

But, wait a second. If there is no way of knowing when we’ll be inside the metaverse, what ensures we aren’t there already? Thousands of people investing in a currency called MANA will probably say that we are already in it. MANA is the main currency of Decentraland, a virtual world that constantly creates different scenes and experiences for its users. A New York Times article states that the combined value of MANA tokens, which run on the Ethereum blockchain, is now at $2.4 billion. 

The decentralized nature of Decentraland has been a matter of discussion. As opposed to previous virtual world efforts such as Second Life or Fortnite, Decentraland is not owned and operated by a private company. As a result, users have more individual freedom, as buying and creating new virtual projects depend entirely on themselves. 

This fact alone is a double-edged sword of sorts. In proto-metaverses such as Second Life or Fortnite, companies in charge banned unethical or immoral activities. Yet Decentraland is different. Who is responsible for looking over user activities in a decentralized virtual world? This question hasn’t been answered yet.

Is the metaverse a gamble? 

In an RTE radio interview, journalists Claire Byrne and Adrian Wreckler argue that Meta’s investment in virtual reality giant Oculus in 2014 is part of a slow and calculated effort to make new technologies affordable to the public. Making VR technology more accessible is important to assert dominance over these new markets.

Yet, technology isn’t the only path towards profit. As indicated in the radio interview, data also proves to be a coveted asset. “Targeted advertising is far more effective than blanket advertising and, (…) these companies use artificial intelligence and feedback loops to conto improve their efficacy constantly.” Of course, such strategies only work on advertising business models that don’t consider cryptocurrency and NFTs’ role in rising virtual economies. 

Frances Haugen, Facebook whistleblower, has repeatedly warned that the social media giant’s take on the metaverse will be detrimental to people’s online safety. She has provided a plethora of internal documents to both authorities and news organizations stating how the company lacks incentive in stopping the amplification of online hate and extremism and protecting young people from harmful content. 

One of Facebook’s earliest investors, Roger McNamee, joined Haugen’s outcry and labeled the initiative “a bad idea“. In a BBC article, he expanded upon his comments and indicated that Facebook had “lost the right to make its own choices. (…) The amount of harm they’ve done is incalculable.”

The shape of something yet to come

The focus on Meta’s interest in the metaverse shifts the attention from one of the most essential points of virtual universes: the collaborative and decentralized nature of many of the early initiatives we’ve mentioned. However, even as the social media company’s interest has sparked a race among tech giants, it is crucial to consider that large companies aren’t the only stakeholders here. Users are just as relevant.

People’s perception of the metaverse as a parallel virtual world has been influenced by science fiction. But it’s a lot more than that, and the beauty of it all is that no one knows how much more. Will we end up sleeping next to a virtual reality set? All we are aware of is that the metaverse we know is just a primitive version of what’s coming.

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