If you're reading this, there's a good chance that you are aware of Facebook's official rebrand to Meta. For quite some time now, Mark Zuckerberg and his boys in blue have had a keen interest in developing and pushing the boundaries of social technologies and the way that we interact with each other. From the acquisition of virtual reality company Oculus a few years back, to the grand unveiling of their plan for the so-called "metaverse", it's clear that they are betting all of their chips on this technology.
But before we proceed any further, let's see what Meta actually mean by that. One employee, Andrew Bosworth, had the following to say about the vision for an online "metaverse":
"For us, the metaverse is a spatial construct, as opposed to the previous web which was really a very linear, flat thing. We want it to be immersive. Now of course, this doesn't mean it has to be virtual reality, it could also just be on a phone or on a desktop computer."
And, a few words from big dog Mark himself from the Metaverse Connect 2021 video:
"The basic story of technology in our lifetimes is how it's given us the power to express ourselves, and experience the world with ever greater richness. Back when I started with Facebook, that mostly meant text that we typed on computers. Then, we all got phones with cameras and the internet became much more visual. And recently as connections got faster, video has become the main way that we experience content. We've gone from desktop, to web, to phones... from text to photos to video - but this isn't the end of the line. The next platform and medium will be even more immersive - an embodied internet where you're in the experience, not just looking at it. And we call this the metaverse. You're going to be able to do almost anything you can imagine - get together with friends and family, work, learn, play, shop, create, as well as entirely new categories that don't really fit how we think about computers or phones today. We believe the metaverse will be the successor to the mobile internet."
OK - so the metaverse is being pitched as kind of a big deal. They want it to be the next natural technological evolutionary step. It's true that the landscape of the internet has changed drastically over the last 20 years, and much of that has been due to developments in the devices and infrastructure that we use. So, I suppose it's only natural to want to develop this further, and both augmented reality and virtual reality are two major forms of tech advancements that we have seen go from sci-fi pipe dream to conceivable reality in a few short years. Meta want their metaverse to become an all-encompassing immersive space for socialising, working, shopping, creating and more.
However, I am not exactly sold on this glorious immersive future presented to us, and I have detailed why below.
It's Not Offering Anything New
Whilst I'm sure that there is more to Zuckerberg's vision than just the virtual reality space, all of the promotional showcases I've seen of it so far boils down to little more than a cringey 3D chatroom -the very kind of cringey 3D chatroom that has existed for decades under many different names. Second Life, released in 2003, was one of the first of its kind to offer this kind of virtual experience with a heavy emphasis on socialising, customisation and expression. VRChat is one of the more recent additions to the genre, taking much of the groundwork laid by tools like Second Life and bringing them into VR. The game is entirely free, and you can browse an extensive user-created list of virtual environments to play and hang out in, with thousands of character avatars to choose from.
Massively Multiplayer Online games have existed since the late 1990s, and each of them boasts its own vast virtual world to be explored, with an extensive focus on social interaction between players. World of Warcraft, Runescape, Habbo Hotel, Club Penguin, Roblox, Guild Wars - the idea of a social online space where you can customise your avatar and surroundings has existed in many forms for many years already. And yet, all of the promotional material for the Zuckerberg's metaverse seems to be pitching all of this as if it is A) their idea, and B) something that hasn't been done before.
I spent New Year's Eve of 2020 on VRChat while we were in lockdown. It was a somewhat novel and entertaining experience, but I think it's safe to say that none of my friends would recommend it as an alternative to physically hanging out. I also think it's safe to say that none of my friends would recommend it as an alternative to just casually hanging out on Discord or Zoom online. And this leads nicely onto my next point.
The timeline of technology shaping how we use the internet, presented to us by Zuckerberg in his quote mentioned earlier, mentions the development of internet speeds and cameras which enabled us to embrace using video. Whilst virtual reality is a step forward from simply watching a video or playing a game, it's not as simple a step as that. I'd argue that it is a step forward, but it won't replace what came before it. VR is a medium that involves overcoming several major hurdles in order to be embraced. Firstly, it is expensive. Even the more budget VR headsets are going to cost you a few hundred pounds, and at the more deluxe end of the spectrum you are looking at £900+. It's an enthusiast medium that simply isn't affordable for everyone. Secondly, the sensation of using a VR headset is nauseating for many, with motion sickness and eye strain preventing people from immersing themselves. And, much like 3D glasses, the sensation doesn't work if you are partially-blind. Thirdly, in order to fully make use of what virtual reality can offer, you need a lot of physical space around you, with no distractions. No small children wandering about, no pets scampering beneath your legs, and no housemates working from home. A lot of people simply don't have enough space in their homes. None of these are barriers for entry for using a mobile device or a computer.
As an Oculus Quest owner, I will openly admit that VR is cumbersome and convoluted compared to simply opening up my laptop or grabbing my phone. If I want to get hold of a friend, order something online, check my email or just kick back and watch something on YouTube or Netflix, it's a quick, portable and painless experience that doesn't involve strapping a heavy headset to my face. I'm able to perform all of the tasks I do on my phone or my computer without the need to remove my ability to see or hear what is actually physically in front of me. Phones became so popular because they are so convenient; VR simply isn't convenient enough to become the go-to way to experience the internet for day-to-day usage. It does have its merits, but it's a niche experience that I simply cannot see becoming the default way to interact with the internet, or indeed, each other. It's being sold as the next "natural evolution" of the internet, when in reality I think it will sit alongside it as a secondary medium for a small niche of people.
It's Not Cool
It's no secret that Facebook isn't exactly the cool, hip new kid on the block anymore. Many people in Gen Z associate Facebook with being the "boomer social network for old people", where their racist uncles argue on Wal-Mart posts, or where their clueless Grandma mistakes the status bar for the Google search bar for the seventh time. For the first time since its creation, Facebook's user totals have been declining since Q3 of 2021. More and more young people are not using it, instead opting to use TikTok or Snapchat as their primary social media platforms. It is true that Facebook also own Instagram and WhatsApp, whose reputations aren't quite as tarnished, but I can't imagine that many people are watching Meta's showcase with much excitement or trust. If Facebook are at the helm of this brave new venture, then I am sure that fact alone is enough to turn a lot of folks off.
Nobody Trusts Them
Facebook have plenty of red marks against their name when it comes to privacy breaches. In fact, I have no doubt that their sneaky name change was in part to distance themselves from their past crimes. There have been multiple instances in the past where Facebook was found to have been misusing its users' data, including the Cambridge Analytica scandal in which they were forced to pay over $5 billion in fines due to privacy violations. Countless ex-employees have become whistle-blowers for the company's shady practices, warning of their unethical practices and dishonesty. Stolen data, leaks and hacks have been covered up and downplayed. I think it's clear at this point that Facebook do not have the interests of their users' safety and privacy in mind - so why should we trust them to lead the way on creating essentially the next iteration of what the internet is?
Throughout all of their big talk about the metaverse, one thing keeps coming up. "Creating an economy". Ah. There it is. There's the real reason for all of this - they don't just want to offer us a fun 3D interconnected playground to play in - they want us to see this as the new way to exist. The new way to be seen. And the new way to spend all of our time, effort and money. I don't really want to be spending my actual money on virtual hats or fake furniture for my "home space". I'd rather, y'know, buy real things. Is that too crazy of an idea?
Meta aren't even the only horses in town. They're only one of several big tech companies trying to carve out their piece of the pie in this new virtual space. The issue here though is if the metaverse is supposed to be an all-encompassing immersive world, doesn't the existence of other metaverse worlds somewhat lessen the "all-encompassing" part somewhat? As well as Meta, we have a plethora of other companies offering a similar experience. Just to name a few, we've got Somnium, Sandbox, Decentraland, Earth2, Microsoft's Mesh... So, if your friend has invested into a different metaverse space than you, I guess you wouldn't be able to hang out with them? That would be unfortunate, and rather detrimental to the entire concept of an immersive one-stop virtual shop.
I know that I am not the only one who feels this way about the vision of the metaverse. There has been a large vocal backlash to a lot of the ideas presented by Meta, and it's interesting to me, because although there have and will always be naysayers when it comes to new tech, I think this is the first major instance I can think of where I think big tech have got it wrong. This isn't the next big thing, because it's not offering the consumer anything useful enough to adopt. Previous technological advances have made things easier, better or more convenient - but as far as I can see, the metaverse does none of these.
I'd love to be wrong. I'd love for there to be some genuinely revolutionary secret innovation coming just around the corner - something that makes me eat my words and jump headfirst into this glorious online space. I...just don't think that it's very likely. We're years away from widespread VR viability for most people, and I think that Mark Zuckerberg and his goons have forgotten that we're still emerging from a worldwide pandemic. People want to experience the real world. They've been cooped up for far too long, and we are a very long way away from any virtual experience that is going to hold a torch to real human interaction. There is a place for VR, but for me it's like watching a movie or reading a book. It's a form of escapism that is best enjoyed in moderation.
And, Mark... go outside, touch some grass, and enjoy the fact that you can enjoy the internet on the go without having to shut yourself off entirely from the physical world.
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