Metaverse FAQs

Prior to 2020, most people had never even heard the word “Metaverse.” A little more than two years later, media conglomerates are regularly discussing the topic. In tandem, major companies and investors are pouring billions of dollars into “building” the Metaverse and related technologies. 

To help cut through the noise, this article provides answers to frequently asked questions (FAQs) about the Metaverse. 

What is it?

Who is behind it?

Is it the same thing as gaming?

Why does it sound confusing?

Does anyone care?

Is it personalized?

How is it going to work together?

Is it safe?

What is it?

Quick answer: The Metaverse is a spectrum of experiences which shift our concept of, “What is real?” 

“Metaverse” is a term coined in the 1992 science fiction novel Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. The term combines the prefix “meta” (meaning “beyond”) and “universe.” 

Yet, despite plenty of mainstream coverage on the topic, a clear definition has not been established. However, virtual spaces where digital and physical worlds converge is a common theme. 

While this angle is useful enough, the term is also an umbrella for blockchain technology, cryptocurrency, non-fungible tokens (NFT), etc., all of which are loosely related to virtual immersion. 

Regardless of how you define it, the Metaverse is a blurring of lines between what we consider real and virtual. Meaning it is a broad spectrum of experiences empowered by technology. And it is an enticing concept precisely because it is broad and open to different interpretations. 

It includes anything from the creation of popular influencers like Lil Miquela – a computer generated Instagram star with 3 million followers – to purchasing virtual real estate to playing augmented reality (AR) games like Pokémon Go. 

In many ways, the Metaverse is a fundamental shift in humanity’s answer to, “What is real?”

Lil Miquela is a computer-generated Instagram star

Who is behind it?

Quick answer: Profit-seeking companies control the Metaverse narrative. 

While certain elements of the Metaverse, like blockchain technology, are supported by an organic community. Companies like Facebook (Meta), Microsoft, and Nvidia are primarily pushing the value of immersive experiences in non-gaming environments.  

This cohort includes a growing chorus of investors and startups anticipating a market for offerings like augmented reality (AR) glasses, virtual clothing/real estate, and blockchain-powered games. Many of whom point to online games as a scaled-down picture of what the Metaverse could eventually become. 

However, online gaming spaces are marked by a shared ethos that members participate in due to passion for games – not because they are being paid. To a great degree, the global video game industry’s $100+ billion in annual revenues are a byproduct of a keen sense of community among gamers

Lacking a clearly defined shared purpose, it is highly doubtful that an organic, cohesive Metaverse community exists. Since, without a sense of belonging, it is difficult to inspire commitment from large numbers of people who are not being paid. 

Note: Even the global open-source software community, which is heavily populated by technology professionals, draws most of its participation from unpaid volunteers who are passionate about collaborative software development. 

Plus, according to Wunderman Thompson, only 38% of global consumers know what the Metaverse is. Meaning this concept is not driven by consumer demand. And as one Metaverse champion, Matthew Ball, puts it, “the technology simply does not yet exist for there to be hundreds, let alone millions of people participating in a shared synchronous experience.” 

These facts point to an influential group of tech futurists as the driving force behind mainstream buzz. While those promoting this vision believe that, despite potential pitfalls, it represents a positive step toward a better, albeit more technology-dependent, world. Most people – the ones expected to spend their time and income on the Metaverse – are not onboard.  

Is it the same thing as gaming?

Quick answer: Immersive spaces of all varieties are following online gaming’s blueprint. 

Most perspectives on the topic acknowledge that immersive social spaces already exist in the online gaming community. Some even contend that gaming is full of smaller metaverses that are prototypes of a larger, yet-to-be-realized Metaverse. Where the video game industry’s massive commercial success helps anchor the potential economic impact of more immersive spaces.  

For the last 20 years, online gaming has established a rock-solid foundation for creating virtual places, worlds, and societies which happen to have activities that people can play. Other spaces centered around non-gaming activities are just following that blueprint. 

Why does it sound confusing?

Quick answer: Virtual worlds are immensely complex and challenging to scale. 

If the concept of interconnected virtual worlds, made possible by a convergence of multiple technologies, sounds complex. That is because it is. Especially when markets and economies get involved – as is anticipated in the Metaverse. 

Second Life, the 19-year-old virtual world created by Linden Lab, is a picture-perfect example of just how intriguing and complex these environments can be. According to figures from Linden Lab, the online world has:  

  • A $600 million annual gross domestic product (GDP) 
  • Over 2 billion user-generated assets  
  • Pays more than $80.4 million to creators per year. 
Second Life is already what the Metaverse champions are envisioning for its future

Second Life is everything the Metaverse is supposed to be, and it has been around since 2003. However, to achieve as much, Linden Lab has instituted measures which are contrary to the current wave of Metaverse designs

  • Anti-speculative market protections via a central bank 
  • Inflation controls to keep the exchange rate of virtual currency in check 
  • Policies like a dropping the price of virtual land 

As a result, the virtual economy took time to grow, just like a real economy. Plus, Second Life never scaled to the number of users expected by companies like Facebook (Meta). This flatter initial growth curve will have the most impact on the advertising/attention-based business models expected to scale in the Metaverse. 

Does anyone care?

Quick answer: Healthy social connection requires emotional transfer. 

The Metaverse is being hailed as the “next evolution in social connection.” Where there are many virtual worlds, not just one, that enable people to deepen and extend social interactions digitally. This vision ignores the reality that there is already a major bias against empathy in online social spaces. 

That is because the transfer of emotions is at the core of empathy. To the point that, low emotional content can encourage anti-social behavior. Emojis have evolved to fill this gap, albeit imperfectly, on messaging and social media platforms. Yet, to realize the potential of deeper social interactions, virtual environments must level up participants’ ability to emotionally connect.  

The tremendous upside of moving, expressive personas (avatars) is balanced by the fact that people will be navigating virtual worlds through a wider array of clients e.g., VR headsets. But regardless of how well technology enables the full range of human expression, the degree to which people feel connected to a community of others will be the leading driver of healthy social interactions.  

Is it personalized?

Quick answer: Personalization will undoubtedly exist in the Metaverse, but it must be trust-based. 

The success of platforms like Amazon and Netflix has accustomed people to expect personalized experiences across the board. To the point that, 80% of customers are more likely to make a purchase when brands offer personalized experiences. That means personalized experiences will undoubtedly exist in the Metaverse. 

Still, research shows that personalization increases usability and value, but it also challenges user trust. This double-edged sword is particularly sharp in virtual environments where systems are tracking much more than clicks on a webpage.  

The track record of large companies like Facebook (Meta) repeatedly abusing user privacy means immersive environments will have to be designed from the ground up as trust-based systems. So that users, who are rightfully wary of privacy practices, can see how personalization works and have the tools to control it. 

How is it going to work together?

Quick answer: Getting platforms to talk to each other is a social, not technological, problem. 

While massively popular games like League of Legends and World of Warcraft bring millions of players together in shared worlds, each game title is a walled garden. The vision of new social systems built in the Metaverse depends on breaking down those silos. To the extent that digital items and interactions are more transferable across experiences. 

Meeting this challenge requires a strong commitment to shared standards – since interoperability is a social problem. For example, two of the most popular video game engines today, Unity and Unreal, do not agree that up is the y-axis. Further proof that a lack of consensus is an issue with coordination, not technology. 

Ironically, virtual worlds that usher in the next phase of the Web will require a similar commitment to common specifications and guidelines that were key to the first phase of the consumer Internet. Otherwise, it will trend towards a small handful of centralized walled gardens e.g., social media. That means organizations like the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) should factor into realizing the Metaverse’s potential.  

Is it safe?

Quick answer: Safe virtual spaces require treating every feature like a potential weapon.  

Early forms of the Metaverse offer numerous lessons in creating safe spaces e.g., accounts of a virtual groping in QuiVR. Specifically, the reality that all features in an immersive environment can be weaponized. Where people will express pre-existing biases, tribalism, and/or personal flaws through any channel – whether it is voice chat or virtual gesturing.  

User generated content (UGC) is already being hailed as a critical building block of the Metaverse. However, even this feature can be used for harm. As it was when a bad actor in Second Life unleashed a barrage of doctored pornographic images on the virtual building hosting a CNET interview with Anshe Chung, avatar of Ailin Graef, one of its richest landowners. 

Social media platforms are already under fire for pushing people toward more extreme content e.g., acting as “radicalization engines.” Simply because there are strong commercial incentives for algorithms that give people content to keep them on the site and sell more ads. In the Metaverse, the presence of digital items that hold real world value can and will create additional issues related to corruption, extortion, theft, etc. 

To counter this threat, virtual experiences must require all participants to affirmatively sign a clear code of conduct that is reinforced by a wider community. Something which could include zero-tolerance policies that permanently ban first-time offenders, no questions asked. 

However, an effective code of conduct depends on persistent identity that does not allow bad actors to spin up new accounts indefinitely. Some dating apps use facial recognition systems to instantly verify the account owner. The Metaverse will need similar systems built around a persistent identity that can be verified across virtual worlds. 

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