If you’ve been reading about the metaverse recently, you’ll notice something is missing: a semi-cogent explanation of what it actually is.
The Times’ latest op-ed about metaverses isn’t bad, per se, but it continues the frustrating trend of “this word is now important because a big company has said it enough.” WIRED’s “What Is The Metaverse, exactly?” is a rambling attempt to nail down what it could mean, but the article makes a very good point: that the metaverse sort of already exists:
It's difficult to parse what all this means because when you hear descriptions like those above, an understandable response is, “Wait, doesn't that exist already?” World of Warcraft, for example, is a persistent virtual world where players can buy and sell goods. Fortnite has virtual experiences like concerts and an exhibit where Rick Sanchez can learn about MLK Jr. You can strap on an Oculus headset and be in your own personal virtual home. Is that really what “the metaverse” means? Just some new kinds of video games?
Well, yes and no. Saying that Fortnite is “the metaverse” would be a bit like saying Google is “the internet.” Even if you could, theoretically, spend large chunks of time in Fortnite, socializing, buying things, learning, and playing games, that doesn't necessarily mean that it encompasses the entire scope of the metaverse.
There are several hundred more words that go into varying different discussions of people’s “visions” for the metaverse, however, including some stuff about holograms and Microsoft mentioning the metaverse and virtual reality and augmented reality and a bunch of other things that are not useful for readers but are extremely useful for the big companies “making bets” on the metaverse.
The entire metaverse discussion is engineered by companies that are looking for new and innovative ways to raise funding and extract money from people. If the metaverse is a digital world in which you “live,” then it’s sort of already here in the form of virtual rooms and video games.It’s also so incredibly far away from the trite comparisons to Ready Player One and Snow Crash (neither of which are pleasant tales of the future!) that to act as if they’re even in the distant future is journalistic malpractice.
Take this quote from the WIRED article:
If VR and AR headsets become comfortable and cheap enough for people to wear on a daily basis—a substantial “if”—then perhaps the idea of a virtual poker game where your friends are robots and holograms and floating in space could be somewhat close to reality.
What an utterly clownish sentence. The substantiality of that “if” is not “hey, maybe we’ll work this out,” but “we are not even remotely close to doing this on a very basic level.” If you’ve used an Oculus HTC, or Sony VR headset, or any other of the various bespoke VR experiences, you will know that they are janky, even if you can get the hardware to fit well.
Some of the experiences are cool and interesting, but they are not practical. You could not “live” inside them. There are so many VR experiences that feel like alpha or beta experiences, which suggests that we’re not simply decades from a metaverse because of the lack of technology, but also based on the lack of developer tooling.
Nevertheless, we are experiencing the capitalist lathe of heaven where the sheer force of rich people’s dreams have started to alter our perception of what is possible, at least if you work in the media. Seemingly every major outlet has bought into the idea that “metaverse” is the term to use, despite the fact that it fails to provide the basic utility required. It is not a useful catchall term, it is not descriptive in any way, and because it can apply to things that exist today (such being in a video game, or using the Internet), there is a great deal of work being done in the media to give companies credit for “building the future,” even though they’re only doing things they were already doing.
The only reason people are giving this term the time of day is because Facebook (successfully) used it to distract from the larger conversation about how much they suck. And because seemingly everybody will fall for everything, Microsoft was able to ride a wave of metaverse press by simply saying the word where everybody could hear it.
The reality is that the metaverse is either already here - you’re experiencing it through online communities, to which I say “come on, it doesn’t need a special term” - or it is so far in the future that reporters covering “people’s ideas about the metaverse” is like sports reporters writing “what if a running back could run a 40 yard dash in 2 seconds?” every single week.
Bored and Rich Capital
Naturally, the meaninglessness of the term makes it catnip for fans of decentralized communities and autonomous companies, also known as Web3.
In my twelve years doing PR, I don’t think I’ve ever seen the venture community unite around pumping two more specious industries - and that includes the rest of crypto - with such passion and froth. Every major influencer-investor - the ones that seemingly do not do anything other than post on Twitter and release 4-hour-long podcasts - has done some sort of 30-tweet thread about how web3 is the future of the economy, but also communities, and that is where the metaverse fits in. Confused? Well, they think you’re an idiot and they’re going to block you if you question it. .
These ideas are perfect for the current era of vast global inequality, because they can be quickly connected to personal enrichment. Web3-blockchain-MMORPG (ugh) Axie Infinity costs $1000 to start, but players can “play to earn” by selling weird Pokémon ripoffs on the blockchain. The idea, of course, is that “everybody wins” because the value of a token goes up, and“it’s decentralized and thus no big party wins,” as long as you don’t think about who has the most tokens, who invested early, and who is or isn’t manipulating the price. The public lie is that you’re playing or participating because it’s a fun game, and because you want to “own your data,” but the reality is you’re trying to “invest” in a system that was built to monetize you.
By connecting the term “metaverse” with futuristic science fiction, venture capitalists and founders can take something that isn’t really that impressive and claim that it’s part of a new movement that, if it even exists, probably sucks. Web3 is the natural counterpart to this vacuous conversation because it is a direct way in which the capital going into these meaningless terms can seek liquidity under the auspices of giving people “value,” and letting them “own their data.”
And just like NFTs, these companies aren’t really focused on doing things you need or want to do better, but in trying to sell you a way to remove the Fear Of Missing Out On The Future, even if the product in question is bad. Every explanation of the wonkiness of these experiences is some form of “oh, we’re early days” or “this is going to be the future,” and because so many people feel like they missed out on investing in companies like Apple and Amazon early, they are really being sold a chance to get in on the “ground floor.”
I’m not against the idea of discussing the future in its early stages, but I find these narratives pointless. What are people actually doing with the metaverse? Why are we fear-mongering about how we’ll “go to work in the metaverse” when the interfaces for most metaverse products range from unusable to impractical?
The very rich people have decided they want us to have this conversation for a few reasons:
Companies like Microsoft want to appear future-forward. There is a vague sense that this is a thing, and it’s a term that investors want to hear because they have big chunks of cheddar cheese instead of a brain.
Venture Capitalists are excited about the idea of investing in something early enough that sensible people will likely ignore it, and it’s very likely that their earlier successes have made them blind to the fact that the metaverse isn’t remotely close and none of the tech we’re discussing today is part of it.
Venture Capitalists have realized that this is a great way to pretend that something old is new, and, in connection with web3, they can sell the idea of a pay-to-enter virtual world in which they control the central currency and liquidity.
Both web3 and the metaverse conversation remind me of Clubhouse, in that they are both ideas that are either bad or too early, but that forces of capital want us to believe are both current and valuable. The media is covering them out of what I’d argue is a misguided sense of duty to the reader - since money is going into these things they must be important - but for some reason continues to pull their punches when it comes to discussing whether these ideas make a lick of practical sense. Despite the fact that many members of the media have remained crypto skeptics - as they should! - both the metaverse and web3 (despite its relation to crypto) seem to have skated on by because enough powerful people have invested in them.
No matter how I think about or read this conversation, I cannot get over the sense that people are being misled by its very existence. To call it “the metaverse” is to suggest a metaverse exists in the way that it’s being described - your virtual worlds are still being accessed via game controllers or keyboards, and your virtual reality experiences are janky, buggy and uncomfortable, and even though they’ve dramatically improved, they’re still many years away from being mainstream products. We lack the commonality of graphical processing power and physical technology to make VR accessible to most people, so how the fuck are we discussing the metaverse as if it’s already here?
I believe we’re in a place where extremely (and moderately) rich people have become desperate and scared that they’re losing their grip on what the future is, and they’ve decided to try and create it themselves through sheer force of will. They tried to do so by claiming Clubhouse was the future, and it failed. They’re trying to cram the Metaverse conversation through, and it’s succeeding only in taking up oxygen.
The reason that I am randomly bringing up web3 in this case is because it’s the natural escape hatch for metaverse investors. It’s a way to make sure that “the future” for venture capitalists actually comes true - there just has to be enough hype in the tank to get the price of whatever token or NFT or asset they’re selling alongside it to a point that they can comfortably and quietly exit and make a massive return off the backs of the people they’ve fooled.
It’s that simple: you are either being sold a dream so that someone else can profit before it comes true, or you’re being sold something that already exists as if it’s brand new. In any case, someone else is going to get rich as long as you conflate avaricious obsession with something also being valid.