The concept of a virtual reality called the metaverse was first coined in the 1992 science-fiction novel Snow Crash. In it, the author describes a dystopian future where humans interact with each other via digital avatars.
Forward 30 years and that future are not so dystopian. A hoard of tech companies, with Meta at the forefront, are now aggressively pursuing this dream of virtual reality. The idea is to create a digital environment that allows users to interact with each other in an immersive virtual world.
However, if demonstrations by Mark Zuckerberg are anything to go by, metaverse technology is still a bit far off. Images are too clunky and too far off from reality. Despite this, Meta still believes the Metaverse to be the next big thing. Founder Zuckerberg has bet the whole house on it, even going as far as to rename the whole company in alignment with this ‘big idea’.
Whether or not Meta manages to actually build something worthwhile is still to be determined. I am neither a designer nor an avid programmer to predict how this will go, I leave that to the professionals. What I however take issue with is this idea of digital avatars. The concept is that people will be able to interact with each other in the metaverse using cartoonish digital avatars.
Of course, my use of ‘cartoonish’ is in reference to Zuckerberg’s recent demonstrations of the ‘metaverse’. The selfie he took in front of a low-res model of the Eiffel tower, quickly struck a nerve, sparking sneers, jeers and sighs from quippy social media users. Zuckerberg however promised that the metaverse won’t look that wacky.
Anyway, my biggest qualm is not with the technology, I’m sure Mark will sort that out soon enough. I worry more about digital avatars. If the idea is to present yourself as something you are not, online, then aren’t we already doing that?
Social Media as New Reality
Think about it.
No one is really who they say they are on any social media website. Many users, for reasons best known to themselves, strive to create an online persona that does not accurately portray who they really are in real life.
Take Twitter, for instance, the most dystopian social media platform in my opinion. For many accounts here, it is virtually impossible to determine the persona behind them. In my experience, most hide behind flags, images of historical or fictional characters etc. It’s no wonder Musk and the Twitter board can’t agree on the correct number of bots on the platform. It is almost impossible to differentiate them from real accounts.
Now whether you agree with this is not the question, the idea I am addressing here is that these ‘anonymous’ accounts are essentially ‘digital avatars’, just without the animations.
Moreover, we all know too well how divorced social media platforms are from reality. With algorithms designed to hook users for as long as possible, they create another kind of reality where users are clustered together depending on interests and opinions rather than geographical proximity.
The result is that users regularly find themselves in echo chambers; always surrounded by people with the same opinions and interests. Now, this is not bad in itself, in fact, user clustering is a very effective marketing strategy. However, echo chambers might also re-enforce harmful ideas as users rarely encounter opposing opinions.
This is how we end up with dangerous online groups who may sometime spew hate and other dangerous sentiments. Moreover, this reality might spill over to the real world as such groups tend to want to bend the rules of the real world to fit what they experience in their virtual social media realities.
Now maybe I am over-estimating the difference between social media and the real world. Maybe they are a lot more alike than we realize. After all, the ideas and sentiments on these platforms no matter how egregious, do come from real people (most of the time, at least). However, no one can deny the effect social media has had on the real world. It distorts the nature of our world to fit specific narratives that are simply untrue.
It is no surprise then that a social media company, Facebook, is at the forefront of the push to the metaverse. They were already in it. Only now, the company wants to ump it up a little bit with animated environments and avatars. The concept, however, remains the same.
Will the metaverse then be the same as social media websites?
Yes, in some ways, but with a few key differences.
One is that the metaverse utilizes the visual-audio senses much more than social media’s websites. These senses have their limits i.e., we can have more than 1000 people in one online community but can’t converse with 1000 people at a time in the real world much less in the metaverse.
Also, metaverse aims to be a lot more interactive than social media. Digital avatars make it possible for one to engage with one another ‘face-to-face’ giving it a much more realistic ‘vibe’ than social media.
I do however expect the metaverse to create segregated communities just like social media. Users will coalesce in environments that match their interests. These groups will however be a lot more varied than social media as these environments will be a lot more interactive.