According to Facebook’s own statistics, the platform (not to mention WhatsApp and Instagram users) has a monthly global audience of 1.9 billion people – not bad for a project that started in a college dorm room at the turn of the century. However, even a cursory glance at recent news reveals that Mark Zuckerberg’s invention is, to put it bluntly, going through a rocky patch. People have been paying greater attention to how information is distributed since the 2016 election, not all of which is true, and much of it is arguably tailored to intensify divisiveness. Inquiries into the company’s involvement in affecting not just our personal lives but also politics have been conducted in both the public and private sectors. One motivating element behind chairman, chief executive officer, and controlling shareholder Zuckerberg’s renewed eagerness for reform is the brand’s seeming entanglement in issue after issue.
Enter the “metaverse”
An adapted platform, the “metaverse,” is a “immersive internet experience” that leverages traditional social media, augmented reality, and similar technologies to create an online existence that is just as “engaging as your real one,” as explained in a detailed virtual presentation of the concept (and as a corollary to a company name change to Meta). The final result, according to the business, will be a “world of limitless, interconnected virtual communities” where people can meet, collaborate, play games, and more utilizing virtual reality headsets and AR glasses. Earlier this year, Zuckerberg gave a two-hour lecture on the metaverse’s potential, describing it as “the next generation of social interaction” — virtual and engaging areas where people might mingle with one another, study together, and interact in new ways.
Sure, the rhetoric is lofty, but Meta isn’t the first firm to go public with such lofty aspirations. Some people may recall Second Life, a Linden Lab application that allows users to create a virtual avatar that they can then use to interact with an online world. In concept, it’s similar to a traditional MMORPG, or “It launched in 2003 and continues to be used by hundreds of thousands of people, but it has never achieved stratospheric success. “Massively multiplayer online role-playing game” — in which users from all over the world could interact with the same environment — it launched in 2003 and continues to be used by hundreds of thousands of people, but it has never achieved stratospheric success.
Second Life had no “narrative” or “objective” to achieve; the fun was in engaging in ways that users couldn’t in real life. The metaverse, too, wants to push things forward. Its beginnings may be traced back to 2014, when the corporation paid $2 billion for Oculus. Even back then, Zuckerberg prophesied that his social media empire would evolve into a place where people would not merely engage with friends online in a passive fashion by sending messages or photos, but would create events and adventures that they couldn’t have in real life.
The metaverse idea is a logical extension of that concept, and it is without a doubt one of the most ambitious initiatives of its kind to date. People will have virtual office places, for example, where those who work from home can assemble and yet feel part of a community. They will also have virtual residences where they would be able to house their online buddies. They can play games, go to concerts, and travel to cities that would otherwise be inaccessible to them, among other things.
Potential dangers and gains
There are, however, others who are apprehensive of and/or skeptical of the platform, including those who believe its introduction (and corporate name change) was staged to divert attention away from the corporation’s multiple scandals. One of the assertions made by onetime Facebook employee and whistleblower Frances Haugen, who outlined how the company’s playbook boiled down to: “If you don’t like what’s being said, you try to change the subject.” Whether or if potential users are enthralled by the concept, the metaverse appears to be an aggressive endeavor to do just that.
Concerns about privacy are also crucial to address. Users have previously entrusted the company with a large amount of personal information. How will that information be preserved… how will those experiences be kept away from people who seek to hurt others if they literally begin “living” their life in a virtual realm? This is a difficult subject for which there is no simple answer, and given Facebook’s current reputational blemish, the public is right to have a low level of safety confidence.
Regardless, this is an interesting concept that was had to come our way at some point — and from some company — whether we were ready or not. And, in terms of addressing some critical requirements, the timing appears to be ideal. People in 2019 may have dismissed the idea of employing augmented reality for virtual interactions and digital collaboration as a waste of time. After spending so much time at home due to a still-active epidemic, we’ve all grown accustomed to virtual connections and believe it totally normal to “work” with people we’ve never met. Thanks to the metaverse, this could become the norm for a lot more things in life. It remains to be seen whether or not this is ultimately a good thing, but it appears to be unavoidable.