Are You Missing Out on the Metaverse?

Pitches for the future of the internet are banking on an old trick: FOMO.

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If you have an internet connection, you’re probably familiar with the feeling. Something new starts happening online. People seem really excited about it. Suddenly you’re curious. (Sure, I’ll join TikTok.) Or maybe you feel dread. (Am I too late to buy crypto?) Everyone at some point fears missing out on something.

Speaking of which, have you heard about the metaverse? Even if you didn’t tune into Mark Zuckerberg’s 81-minute video disquisition last week on the future of human interaction, which culminated with the rebranding of Facebook as Meta, the term has been bubbling up this year. Leaders in technology, entertainment and fashion have rushed to stake their claim in it, though few seem to agree about what exactly it is. The important thing is that it’s coming.

Conversations about the metaverse reduce the feeling of FOMO to its barest, most generalized form. “Metaverse” — the term — was coined by Neal Stephenson in his 1992 novel, “Snow Crash,” and has recently been hurled into such wide and varied use that it has come to mean something no more specific than the future. Who wants to miss out on that?

Well, to be fair, lots of people. And they have their reasons. For now, talk of the metaverse is mainly a branding exercise: an attempt to unify, under one conceptual banner, a bunch of things that are already taking shape online.

Matthew Ball, a venture capitalist who writes about the metaverse, has described it as “a sort of successor state to the mobile internet,” which is helpfully demystifying: The metaverse describes the way in which several emerging technologies — cryptocurrencies, NFTs, online game platforms like Roblox, and mixed and virtual reality hardware, including Facebook’s Oculus, for example — may grow and overlap. In Mr. Zuckerberg’s words: “I believe the metaverse is the next chapter for the internet, and it’s the next chapter for our company too.”

As a point of comparison, Mr. Ball often looks to the smartphone era, which changed our relationship with technology in ways that were as profound and shocking as they now seem banal.

Think back 10 years to when smartphones and apps were new, and social media was on the rise. Lots of people believed that the supercomputer-in-your-pocket era would change, well, a lot of things, even if they didn’t quite know how. Metaverse boosters, who can seem eager to just jettison the last era’s baggage, believe we’re on the cusp of even bigger changes.

If this sounds more linear than visionary, despite the sci-fi branding and “decades from now” talk, that’s because it is. Fortnite has more than 300 million players around the world, many of whom see it as a way to hang out with friends and engage with the broader culture. Cryptocurrencies and NFTs are only speculative in the financial sense — they exist, and you probably know someone who owns some. There are tens of millions of virtual reality headsets in circulation now, mostly for gaming. Give one a shot. They’re interesting!

You can even just consider the utterly obvious ways that the internet has become more present in your life, gesturing in the general metaversal direction. The way you’ve cultivated online personas in different contexts, on Instagram or LinkedIn or Slack. The way you play Scrabble on your phone all day, wherever you are. The dreary virtual office of the Covid Zoom grind. The group chat!

Using a label like “the metaverse” has the strange effect of making things that are already happening sound far-off and impossible. People really are spending enormous amounts of time and money in rich, gamelike interactive spaces with cultures and economies of their own. Entrepreneurs really are building an alternative financial system using blockchain technology, buying and selling virtual real estate, and trying to figure out how a placeless, stateless system might govern itself.

As several tech writers have noted, Mr. Zuckerberg’s pitch is not particularly novel. (Any Roblox fan in your life could have told you that.) The label also provides a slippery subject for criticism. If anything about these trends is concerning to you, don’t worry! It’ll all be better when we’re really in the metaverse.

For all its gestures at a vague future yet to be built, Mr. Zuckerberg’s attempt to explain and stake a claim over the metaverse made one thing clear: The strongest FOMO might be his. To someone whose company can be genuinely said to have changed the course of history, becoming central in the lives of billions of people, the prospect of yet another new internet era could be downright terrifying.

It’s not lost on the early winners of the social media era that a lot of what people are getting excited about online right now — pretty much anything that promises a “decentralized” experience — is, by definition, positioned against big firms like Facebook. (This would also explain why Mr. Zuckerberg spent so much time talking about virtual reality, where Facebook has a real foothold.)

Not missing out on the last next big thing is what made tech leaders, and their companies, what they are. Missing out on the next big thing, whatever it is, is not an option. Giving various promising and threatening trends a unifying name is more comforting, from this view, than contemplating the chaos of dozens of competing technologies being adopted by billions of people careening off in directions that even the most prescient visionaries will get only a little bit right.

As Benedict Evans, another venture capitalist, wrote in October, the current metaverse discourse is “rather like standing in front of a whiteboard in the early 1990s and writing words like interactive TV, hypertext, broadband, AOL, multimedia, and maybe video and games, and then drawing a box around them all and labeling the box ‘information superhighway.'” (His former employer, the crypto-forward firm Andreessen Horowitz — where a named partner is on Facebook’s board — has leaned harder on the term “Web3.”)

The current tech giants have resources, talent and industrial-grade FOMO on their side, so it would be a mistake to underestimate their influence on this so-called successor state of the internet.

There are two predictions I feel comfortable making about the metaverse, however.

One: It will not be known, by the people who inhabit its sprawling, distinct, yet-to-be determined environments, as “the metaverse.” If we’re really doing our jobs in virtual offices, we’ll just call it work.

Two: For most of us, missing out on a more thoroughly connected lifestyle, in which identities and work and sociality are further blended across physical and virtual spaces, many designed with profit in mind, won’t be the problem. It’ll be figuring out whether we can leave.

For Context is a column that explores the edges of digital culture.

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