The word “metaverse” is one that’s been bandied around frequently over the past couple of years. You’ve likely seen wistful executives with a gleam in their eyes talk about how the metaverse will change everything and be the primary form of human communication in the future. But, what is the metaverse, and should anyone really care?
What is the Metaverse?
There is no singular metaverse, and you could argue that nothing close to one exists. The term was coined in the 1992 Neal Stephenson novel <em>Snow Crash</em>, to describe a large virtual world that people experienced through <a href="https://www.gamerevolution.com/tag/vr">VR</a>. Most of the companies interested in developing a metaverse (in particular Meta, formerly Facebook) envision the same type of experience. They expect that the metaverse will eventually supplant the internet, and people will use it to shop, socialize, work, and play.
Most people are familiar with this concept from the horrific Ernest Cline novel <em>Ready Player One</em> (or its equally terrible movie adaptation). The metaverse is generally posited as a seamless virtual universe that blends corporate and user-created content. So, you could theoretically catch the monorail over to Fortnite Island, then drive the free Chevrolet Impala you won in a contest over to a stadium to see a concert.
<h2>Should I Care?</h2>
There’s a huge reason not to pay any mind to any current attempt to build a metaverse: it’s already been done.
Throughout the late 90s and 2000s, several virtual communities were launched that achieved a lot of press and popularity. Second Life was the largest of these, but others like Worlds Chat also had quite a following.
Though they weren’t VR-based, these services still offer many of the things that companies like Meta hope to incorporate. You can create an avatar and chat with people from around the world. In addition, there are tools to create your own virtual worlds and items that others can enjoy. For a while, virtual concerts and events were sponsored within them by big companies. Some of them even have their own virtual currencies that can be exchanged for real money.
But, some saw the writing on the wall with even these services that had something more than the vague promises we’re hearing about the metaverse today. A Wired article from July 2007, titled “How Madison Avenue is Wasting Millions on a Deserted Second Life” had this to say:
“Ever since BusinessWeek ran a breathless cover story titled “My Virtual Life” more than a year ago, reporters have been heralding Second Life as the here-and-now incarnation of the fictional Metaverse that Neal Stephenson conjured up 15 years ago in Snow Crash. Unfortunately, the reality doesn’t justify the excitement.”
The popularity of Second Life was overblown by fudging the active user numbers (sound familiar?), and businesses were chomping at the bit to tap into a new advertising stream. Companies like Coca-Cola, Nissan, Pontiac, Sears, and lots more spent hundreds of thousands to establish a virtual presence only to find no one visited these spaces. Unsurprisingly, those that did log in to Second Life frequented locations where they could get free in-game money or virtual sex dens.
Second Life’s big boom was between 2006 and 2008, and it was largely driven by hype and a small population of speculators that thought a user-created economy could make them millions (see: cryptocurrency and NFTs). As you can see, there’s a pattern here. Everything that’s old is new again. Maybe one day, a concept like this will come to fruition and replace the web as we know it. However, the technology just isn’t there yet. So, if someone asks you to buy some NFTs with cryptocurrency to help fund their Metaverse on Web3, just run away as fast as you can.