Metaverses: The Good, The Bad, and The Unsettling

By Chris Pidgeon

Reading time: 13 minutes

Recently, the world bore witness to Facebook announcing a rebranding, donning the new title “Meta”. Along with this shock announcement, Meta described a shift in their company’s mentality, intending to move away from their traditional social media platforms and toward prioritising the “Metaverse”. But what on earth is a metaverse, and why should we be paying any attention? Allow me to unpack some of the conversations you may have heard.

I have a massive interest in social media and its myriad effects on the generations that have been raised alongside it. Some of my previous articles have discussed its negative outcomes, primarily on mental health, its enhancement of cyberbullying and hate speech, and the widespread addiction to platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and so on. I have subsequently admitted to its many positives, as well. Social media revolutionised the way we communicate, forge friendships, and stay in touch. It accelerated our growth towards becoming a global community, breaking down the barriers enforced by distance, separation, and cultural differences. It is one of the finest double-edged swords we’ve ever created. However, I do tend towards a more cynical approach to analysing these platforms; keep this in mind as you read on.

By Chris Pidgeon

Reading time: 13 minutes

Recently, the world bore witness to Facebook announcing a rebranding, donning the new title “Meta”. Along with this shock announcement, Meta described a shift in their company’s mentality, intending to move away from their traditional social media platforms and toward prioritising the “Metaverse”. But what on earth is a metaverse, and why should we be paying any attention? Allow me to unpack some of the conversations you may have heard.

I have a massive interest in social media and its myriad effects on the generations that have been raised alongside it. Some of my previous articles have discussed its negative outcomes, primarily on mental health, its enhancement of cyberbullying and hate speech, and the widespread addiction to platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and so on. I have subsequently admitted to its many positives, as well. Social media revolutionised the way we communicate, forge friendships, and stay in touch. It accelerated our growth towards becoming a global community, breaking down the barriers enforced by distance, separation, and cultural differences. It is one of the finest double-edged swords we’ve ever created. However, I do tend towards a more cynical approach to analysing these platforms; keep this in mind as you read on.

The first thing you need to be aware of is that the Metaverse is by no means a new idea. The term originated – as many things in our collective ‘sci-fi meets reality’ experiences often do – in the world of fiction. Stephenson’s book Snow Crash envisioned a virtual-reality (VR) driven descendent of the Internet – the Metaverse – that allows users to create avatars and travel across digital worlds. This idea permeated across the technological landscape of our world.

At a base level, this is what purveyors of metaverses aim to create: a universe of virtual worlds owned and operated “by the people, for the people”. This can already be seen in the massively successful Second Life, a social platform that allows users to buy and sell property, run businesses, exchange goods and services for currency; you can live another life. As many are soon to point out, though, these properties also belong to many kinds of video games and interactive services – you can do all these same things in World of Warcraft.

What makes Second Life a true metaverse, though, is the lack of pre-defined “gamification” or business-defined goals and objectives. Second Life allows the player to make the world what they want it to be: dark and seedy, fun and light-hearted, an augmentation to real-life, or a replacement entirely. Second Life has been used in education as a tool for online collaboration and learning, as will another metaverse iteration soon to be implemented by Microsoft.

Microsoft plan an extensive overhaul of their Teams platform to allow for the creation and utilisation of 3D avatars to represent us during online meetings. For those who have worked from home during the pandemic, it assuredly sounds fantastic to have an AI-powered avatar represent you on those days when you just can’t get ‘webcam-ready’. In time, this platform would expand to create virtual meeting spaces built in whatever fashion a company could desire, where companies can host meetings with hundreds of people in entirely virtual environments.

As one of those many job titles that we could never begin to imagine ten years ago, I foresee something like “Freelance MS Teams VR Designer” becoming a trending career path. Digital artists and content creators would have the ability to hire out their services to companies who are after specific designs, before long establishing an interconnected network of people, devices, avatars, companies, artists, administrators; a metaverse.

MS Teams and Second Life are just the beginning of the metaverse journey, though. Several platforms have already entered the race for the top of the metaverse heap, namely Decentraland, The Sandbox, Cryptovoxels, and Somnium Space. Each is powered by some form of a blockchain implementation – most commonly Ethereum – that facilitates the worlds’ core mechanics: persistent ownership of virtual assets, full control of said assets, and a flourishing economy for those assets to exist in. This, combined with integration into the exciting world of NFTs (Non-Fungible Tokens) and cryptocurrencies, gives these metaverses tangible chances to reach a new level of engagement and userbase not seen by Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

The Sandbox is already receiving increasing levels of engagement, especially after recent news of famous rapper and businessman Snoop Dogg partnering with The Sandbox for a multi-million-dollar deal. Snoop Dogg’s real-life mansion will be replicated in The Sandbox’s virtual world and filled with his $17 million dollar collection of NFTs; players will be able to purchase virtual land next to Snoop Dogg and are currently vying for the purchase of very rare and limited “Private Party Passes”. These passes will give players exclusive access to a private party held by Snoop Dogg to celebrate his move into The Sandbox, as well as access to his concerts and his private NFT art gallery. Players get to meet Snoop, hang out with him, and if they’re lucky, gain access to unique avatar skins that transform their looks into Snoop’s.

Now, frankly, this must sound insane. You would be right to be both leaping out of your chair in excitement or sitting stunned in terror. The metaverses that will become part of our day-to-day lives will bring about massive change. Just as social media introduced an entirely new method of communication and self-expression, metaverses will change the way we interact with one another online, and the kinds of lives we live on the Internet. It’s not likely to end up like a film by the Wachowskis, but it will seem incredibly unfamiliar.

Where my concerns arise, however, is the effect they may have on the most vulnerable kinds of Internet users. It’s evident that our social media have been weaponised for propaganda, radicalisation, and abuse. An MIT Technology Review recently revealed that troll-farm Facebook pages – pages run by individuals whose primary job is to spread misinformation and disrupt public discourse – reach 360 million global users weekly just on Facebook alone. Clearly, Facebook has issues controlling the way information spreads on its platform, or else its directors have simply prioritised growth and engagement (which leads to more ad exposure, and more profit) over the safeties and sensibilities of their users. The Facebook Files (a podcast series by The Wall Street Journal that investigates an extensive array of leaked internal Facebook documents) evidenced that the latter is seemingly the case within the current management structure of the company.

While The Sandbox and other similar ventures could be innocent enough in their pursuit of a fun, engaging landscape for all, Meta’s foray into the metaverse brings with it immediate concern. The company is yet to address the most glaring of issues on their original website, and now they wish to redirect all their technological and financial prowess towards the next version of the Internet? One where users are encouraged to merge the Internet and its many published negative effects on wellbeing, sleep, mental health, and more, into real life itself?

I question Meta’s ability to properly educate people around leading healthy lives in the metaverse, given that the company is driven by bias and political events, is documented to prioritise interaction over improving the healthiness of their systems, and has been aware of the mental health damage it has done to teens for years.

These metaverses are surely inevitable. There is too much demand from those who wouldn’t be affected so severely, and those who wish to reap a profit. There are, of course, many attractive aspects of these systems. The negatives, though – the subtle externalities that can never be addressed or planned for during the creation and maintenance of a technological development – are of increasing concern to myself and many others.

As a young technologist, a writer, and a sceptic of all thing’s social media, I believe that now is the time to start educating, to start preparing our children, our teens, and our most sensitive and endangered members of our communities for the oncoming changes the metaverse will bring. I would recommend that parents, teachers, and those working with children, teens, and young adults spend time talking about how they use social media and encourage the use of app timers that limit daily interaction with their phones or other devices.

Those who are working in technology need to pursue working ethically and morally – consider courses like the Center for Humane Technology’s free Foundations of Humane Technology, aiming to promote a better world of technology in our immediate future. If the companies in charge of the technologies that will change the way we live refuse to change their ways and improve the levels of care and respect given to their users, we must change instead.

The metaverse and all its associated technology will revolutionise the Internet and bring about unimaginable change. Thousands of new jobs will be created and along with them new job titles and responsibilities that will take time to truly understand. Artists and creators will have true freedom to express themselves, while a capitalistic economy will continue to oppress those at the bottom rungs of the digital ladder.

Online communication, gaming, entertainment, exercise; all will become incredibly immersive and engrossing. Everyday people will be encouraged more so than ever to spend as much time as possible online, allowing companies to profit off their attention and emotions. So long as we understand what’s coming, though, and take proactive courses of actions to look after ourselves and our communities, we will all be fine. This is by no means doomsday or the end of the world as we know it – just the beginning of a new chapter. Humans will always evolve; it’s just not our bodies doing the changing anymore. It’s our technologies and our ambitions. Use this article as your launch pad for understanding more about what’s to come; you’ll do well to stay informed.

Be seeing you in the metaverse!

 

Sources: 1. Snow Crash 2. If Second Life isn’t a game, what is it? NBC News 3. Microsoft Teams enters the metaverse race with 3D avatars and immersive meetings. The Verge 4. Snoop Dogg moves into The Sandbox. DappRadar 5. Troll farms reached 140 million Americans a month on Facebook before 2020 election, internal report shows. Technology Review 6. Meta, Keynote 7. Facebook’s internal chat boards show politics often at center of decision making; 8. Facebook tried to make its platform a healthier place. It got angrier instead; 9. Facebook knows instagram is toxic for teen girls, company documents show. Wall Street Journal 10. humanetech.com

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