In changing the name of the parent company to Meta, Facebook put a stake in the ground: it would become the symbol of the evolution of the Internet, the metaverse. Whether we liked it or not.
According to Meta, the metaverse is “a series of digital spaces for socializing, learning, playing, and more.” The first real effort came in the form of Horizon Worlds, a virtual reality universe so lifeless and contentless that people wonder if the metaverse is a step forward or backward.
Luckily it doesn’t matter.
The other way around, a term long before Facebook existed, happens. The potential and appeal can be found in existing places – games like Fortnite, platforms like Roblox, and online hubs like Discord. There will be no metaverse launch, no switch turning it on. You have experienced parts of it, whether you realized it or not. More and more of your real identity has merged with your digital identity. IRL to URL, and back again.
The metaverse is not what you read
Clearly the metaverse is not what Meta says it is.
“A set of digital spaces for socializing, learning, playing and more” accurately describes today’s apps and games, but this simplified definition has made the term “metaverse” synonymous with stilted software like Horizon Worlds, a painfully unimaginative 3D world with early 2000s-era graphics and plenty of space for ads.
For those not deep in the weeds of writer Matthew Ball’s precise definition, the metaverse can be seen as a change in how we view and experience our digital lives — not a 3D world, but a shift to a more immersive, simultaneous , representative relationship between our physical and digital selves. The metaverse blurs the line between the real and the digital, an evolution of the change brought about by the mobile web.
So of course the metaverse won’t flourish because of Meta’s isolated, soulless dystopia. Nor will it in Decentraland’s attempt to create a digital world no longer attracts attention than a mildly popular indie game after two years and billions of dollars in funding.
It’s no surprise: Horizon Worlds and Decentraland compete with digital escapes that are exponentially more fun: games, movies, and social networks.
And even more directly, they compete with the real world. If you tell people they’re going to work and play in the metaverse, it better offer something magical than their normal lives. Right now, the meat space is still winning. It’s not even close.
The metaverse needs magic
That magical feeling has always been present in games. Visiting your feline neighbor in Animal Crossing is infinitely more captivating than seeing your legless colleague at a conference table in Horizon Worlds. Making immersive experiences immersive takes that magic, and it’s hard to create a company culture that can create fun, perhaps impossible when you’re monetizing generating more clicks – or whatever call-to-action there is exists in 3D.
3D platforms like Roblox and VRChat have instead built a path for creators to bring their own magic, albeit a narrow one. Spending time on VRChat vs. Horizon Worlds shows the difference between a user-generated world and a corporate world. The first is human and surprising, the second depressing and expected.
But creators must be motivated to create in a specific medium – and given the tools to do so. The old path of motivating creators with sponsorships is toxic and moribund. Creative people don’t want to limit their vision of corporate profits or restrict their options by platform restrictions.
Fortunately, there is another way.
The metaverse needs ownership
Non-fungible Tokens (NFTs) were largely seen as giving power back to the consumer, as a way to put the real property in the hands of the collector, not the platform. And that’s all true.
But ownership has another effect on creators: it motivates them. Instead of creating content for other platforms or advertising for brands, their work is monetized immediately and indefinitely. And in the rare but best scenarios, it’s handled in a really decentralized way, away from cheating.
Decentralization and ownership provide that critical motivating factor for creators – the people who should define what the metaverse looks like. Tokenization frees creators from the bondage of today’s rent-seeking social networks (think Instagram or Snapchat), allowing them to create and sell their work without having to be sponsored by a brand to feed themselves. Protocols built for decentralization will be where creators naturally gravitate, creating avant-garde spaces and defining what creativity means in the metaverse. Gentrification may come later.
Rather than giving creators power and freedom, Meta is structured to think of ad revenue and brand partners first, a strategy that is actively hostile to creators and users in general.
A direct relationship between creators and their communities (an increasingly blurred distinction) creates a new trust, and the foundation for that relationship is what will usher in an awe-inspiring metaverse. The “gray space” where creators and communities meet – an idea embraced by David Bowie – makes for an entirely different dynamic and experience than one where a platform’s core relationship is based on the relationship between the platform owner and its advertisers.
The metaverse needs context
Frankly, creating that magic in the metaverse is challenging, even with digital ownership and the right motivation. Even the best 3D worlds and digital hangouts fail to make a meaningful connection to our real lives. NFTs do not yet affect the physical world beyond their financial impact. We have not returned the URL to IRL.
But the signs are there.
Mixed reality games like Pokémon Go, which bring iconic digital characters into augmented reality, show a centralized approach to an immersive digital world built on top of the physical world. Linking our inherent connection to our digital collectibles, such as Psyduck, back to our real lives allows the metaverse to take on new relevance.
The context-driven version of the metaverse alone also runs the risk of centralization and economics of the attention economy – and must be accompanied by decentralization and a creative ethos. Empowering creators to define reality for themselves creates a future that enhances our lives instead of taking them away.
The metaverse takes place
The metaverse takes place and it won’t look like Meta’s version.
The metaverse is not a specific technology, but an era in which we have a changed perception of the role of technology in our lives. One where digital realities represent a larger part of our shared reality and where the pure use of technology is replaced by creating, owning and experiencing it. The more tangible and connected to us that digital realities become, the more real the metaverse is.
Protocols, not platforms. Makers, not brands. Context, not isolation. Principles and people will determine this next evolution of the Internet, and Meta is not the arbiter either.
Alex Herrit is co-founder of Anima, a protocol for native dynamic augmented reality. Before joining Anima, he built products and games used by billions of people with companies like Epic Games, HBO, and his former startup Ultravisual, which was acquired by Flipboard.
This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to and should not be construed as legal or investment advice. The views, thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect or represent the views and opinions of Cointelegraph.