Understanding the Metaverse

Given the current state of the world, it's easy to see why people might desire an alternate reality — a way to reset the system and begin again. Virtual realms are places where power can be inverted, disappointments can be escaped, and capitalist inequities can be exchanged for something more exciting, malleable, and meaningful.

Therefore, it is not surprising that online universes such as Fortnite and Roblox currently attract nearly 400 million users, and that others such as Decentraland and the Sandbox are rapidly expanding. According to estimates, their market value will soon surpass $1 trillion. Facebook has changed its name to Meta to reflect its belief in the virtual future. Microsoft is preparing for a future in which digital avatars populate workplaces. The likes of Nike and Gucci are creating clothing and accessories for the metaverse. J.P. Morgan and Samsung have established themselves in Decentraland. On Roblox, users can operate their own Forever 21 stores and sell their own designs within them. Even though most people are still unaware of what the metaverse is, numerous businesses are placing large wagers on it.

Here are a few fundamentals about the metaverse, whose definitions vary. It consists of numerous metaverses or digital spaces, which are typically decentralized, incorporate augmented and virtual reality, store data on blockchain, and permit users to own digital goods. The term "the metaverse" describes a vast network of sites and spaces, similar to "the internet."

In practice, the metaverse offers a new way to access the Internet, as well as new markets and products. Hackl, Lueth, and Di Bartolo state in their book that three paradigm shifts are presented:

  1. Consumption is not the only objective of human beings. Gamified and contextualized experiences are far more engaging.
  2. People value their digital persona and wish to transport it across the metaverse and into the real world.
  3. Ownership: Wherever individuals choose to spend their time, they desire to have a stake in the outcome.

In other words, the ultimate goal is to have a unified digital identity on blockchain, one that is the same whether you're logging in to your work computer or your gaming computer at night. It will contain the keys to your cryptocurrency, the NFTs you purchased for your digital home in Decentraland, and all of your other vital information. You are less of a user and more of a member in the metaverse.

This opens up a universe of new opportunities. Terry and Keeney cite Roblox as a precursor to future developments. On it, players create games and spaces, and people congregate for events in a manner not possible on social media sites. Keeney (also known as "DJ Skee") collaborated with Paris Hilton to construct Paris World on Roblox, where she hosted a New Year's Eve party that attracted more people than Times Square's. She informs the authors that this is the future of parties.

The emphasis on ownership is the most striking aspect of the metaverse and Web3. Users can have a stake in almost anything; they can vote on decisions regarding the communities they belong to and the apps they use, make and sell NFTs, and even get paid for playing games in decentralized apps (dApps) that run on peer-to-peer networks instead of servers. User ownership is a true revolution because it establishes a new economic system. The best version of the metaverse, according to van Rijmenam, will liberate users by allowing them to easily move communities and digital goods from platform to platform—for instance, to take a Facebook group to Roblox and then transfer a piece of art created there to Fortnite. In this vision, users are able to profit from their digital assets by selling, renting, or even borrowing against them.

The message, it would appear, is that while users received the short end of the stick on the old web, when they exchanged their data for free search engines and social media platforms, they (or, more accurately, the architects of this new web) are renegotiating the terms. According to Hackl, Lueth, and Di Bartolo, "Play becomes labor that generates assets of value within that dApp (or even in the broader metaverse)" This may involve creating monsters in Axie Infinity and selling them to other players or earning tokens with them, working as a freelance brand ambassador in Decentraland, or selling digital art or avatar gear. Rather than the dopamine hit of likes, the rewards of online life come in the form of crypto.

The old web leaves a lot to be desired, so this is an exciting pitch. The ad-based model makes users' information the product; a handful of megacorporations have so much power that it's nearly impossible to regulate them; and the never-ending push for engagement encourages divisive content, conspiracy theories, and trolling. All of this makes spending time on social media seem like a light vice: I myself speak of Twitter as if it were a cigarette habit I can't kick. An alternative that could dismantle some of the entrenched power and reinvigorate the web would be welcome news.

Nevertheless, I cannot help but see the dystopian side of this future. Play is becoming work, not the other way around. Instead of providing digital freedom and ownership, the metaverse appears to offer more responsibilities without an increase in status. Do I want to bring everything I do in my free time to work with my avatar, dragging my other interests and relationships along with me? Do I wish to transform my pastime into a small enterprise? Moreover, do I wish to spend even more time online? Or has my online existence replaced my humble existence in the real world?

In books, TV shows, and films about virtual reality, from Neal Stephenson's 1992 sci-fi classic Snow Crash (which coined the term "metaverse") to Netflix's Black Mirror, these are precisely the types of dilemmas that the protagonists attempt to escape.

The metaverse as our future?

Companies such as Meta and Microsoft appear to agree, despite the fact that their virtual worlds are closed rather than open. There is no doubt that excitement, money, and momentum are propelling us towards a new form of digital reality. In some way, it will reflect the desires of its user base, be they entrepreneurial, escape, or convenience-oriented. Dystopia is one risk. One more is disappointment: we fantasize about the metaverse but end up in a mall.