I don’t like the word metaverse. And I’m a little bit sick in my mouth when I hear people calling it the betterverse.
The term was coined by Neal Stephenson in his 1992 novel, Snow Crash. In the story, humans are represented as avatars and they exist in a virtual world. Recently Stephenson told Vanity Fair that when he wrote Snow Crash he was just ‘making shit up’.
But now, due to technology, some of what was originally fiction – is now possible.
During and post-pandemic we saw an incredible amount of tech innovation. People needed to build wealth, they needed to break geographical boundaries and they needed to be entertained. These technologies have started to blend and come together to create virtual worlds –– but we didn’t have a term for it. So people began to refer to it as the metaverse.
I’d started speaking about the this virtual world during the pandemic and mostly got faced with comments like ‘it’s all a hype’ or lots of eye-rolls. Next thing I knew, Facebook rebranded to Meta and attitudes seemed to change. Searches for the term "metaverse" barely registered on Google Trends before Zuckerbeg’s October pitch, but have since increased drastically. It was a bit like when you take your dog for a walk and they pee on a tree. Facebook calling themselves Meta was a land grab, but a really clever one. By rebranding to meta, they said: this space is real, it’s happening and we’re the big player.
Interestingly this statement is pretty reflective of most of the behaviour in the virtual space currently. No one really knows what the space is or will look like, so everyone is saying they are an expert and building virtual capabilities or their version of what they think it might be. For example, Facebook rebranded as Meta, but their offering consists mostly of VR currently – which is only a fraction of what the space can deliver.
If we break it down, when we speak about the ‘metaverse’, we’re speaking about a further convergence of our physical and digital lives. A shared, persistent virtual space. It’s what we do offline... but online in 3D but with more potential. Where the internet is no longer passive –– it becomes active.
Matthew Ball says “there will be no clean before Metaverse and after Metaverse” and he’s right. And that’s because we’ve been building it for ages. The ‘metaverse’ is the convergence of different trends and technologies that all come together (the growth of live streaming, VR and AR, rise of multiplayer online games, the blockchain and 5G –– just to name a few). Most people talk about it as one destination: “let’s all go to the pub, then let’s pop to the metaverse”. But, at least for now, that’s not how it works. We don’t know if there will be a single metaverse ("the metaverse") or multiple metaverses ("a metaverse").
Currently, we have lots of siloed experiences –– I sometimes call these microverses (eg. Roblox, Decentraland, Sandbox etc).
Brands have quickly begun to rush to define their strategy in this space. But it’s crucial they take a step back before jumping in. What we have is lots of competing platforms with competing visions (Roblox, Fortnite, Horizon etc) and lots of siloed experiences that don’t connect.
We don’t know if this will change. For many, the north star is that there will be a system where creators or brands can create digital assets that can be owned, worn and utilised in every setting/game/digital store. However, the reality is that with every big technological shift - the tech giants show up to the party.
This virtual world is already shaping up along the familiar monopolistic lines that have characterised the most recent phase of the internet’s evolution. Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon have taken the reins and started to monopolise the metaverse. A big reason for this is that the barrier to entry is quite high, in terms of cost and know-how.
Because the exciting bit is the technologies that will make up the metaverse. These technologies do exist. And when brands use them to create experiences that connect brands to their consumers or to culture (not creating tech for tech sake) –– that’s when it gets really exciting.
Brands need a real reason for being there that connects, engages and entertains the audience. They give us the chance to break away from traditional formulas and think differently about traditional formats.
The definition of the metaverse is in constant flux. Many refer to it as a shared, persistent digital space for meetings, games and socializing. Avatars, often cartoon-like 3D figures, gather in virtual rooms, have meetings and leave. Others see the metaverse as a layer on top of the existing internet, a set of expanding protocols enabling interconnection between apps and platforms. It's unclear if there'll be a single metaverse ("the metaverse"), multiple metaverses ("a metaverse") or a combination of both. Maybe it's best thought of as a metaphor for the internet's continual change.