When, over a decade ago in 2010, we identified virtual worlds as social media, our reasoning was often questioned. To us, however, the link was more than evident. At that time, we had done a lot of research on virtual worlds, notably Second Life. Last week, our logic was confirmed when Facebook, the largest worldwide social network and social media giant, announced its move into the world of the Metaverse, i.e., virtual worlds.
The precursor to the Metaverse
Our research on Second Life, a three-dimensional virtual social world launched in 2003, showed that many of its users, in the form of personalised avatars or, in other terms, graphical representations of a user’s character or persona, saw this virtual world not merely as a game but as an extension of their real lives. In Second Life, users interact with others in real-time, meet and speak with each other, become friends and cultivate their network, even sell and buy virtual products using Second Life’s virtual currency, the Linden Dollar, which can either be obtained by exchanging $US or by working and earning a (virtual) salary. More interestingly, Linden Dollars can also be re-exchanged into $US, making it possible to earn actual money, which back then was already creating some severe headaches for tax lawyers and fiscal authorities.
Often, Second Life was described by its users as being more attractive than their actual “first” lives. The average user in our sample stated that they used Second Life for approximately 4 hours per day, with a median of 2.8 hours. Yet, some of them spent more than 16 hours daily in this virtual environment using their real lives only to get some sleep. Based on our research, we identified four key motivations for using Second Life: the search for diversion, the desire to build personal relationships, the need to learn, and the wish and possibility mentioned above, to earn money. While the hype around Second Life rapidly decreased, Facebook’s Metaverse might be the beginning of another, bigger story.
Facebook’s name choice of Metaverse, a combination of meta, meaning beyond, and the universe, is indeed not trivial.
American science fiction writer Neal Stephenson used this exact term to describe his imaginative virtual world in his 1992 bestseller Snow Crash. In this novel, taking place during the early 21st century, Stephenson tells the story of the pizza delivery driver Hiro, who physically lives in LA but virtually spends most of his day in the Metaverse, where avatars attend concerts, go to work, or consume virtual drugs, like the pseudo-narcotic Snow Crash. The Metaverse becomes so popular that some people even decide to stay permanently connected to it by spending their real lives in storage units, surrounded only by the technical equipment needed to enter the virtual world.
Neal Stephenson fictively describes what Second Life partly turned into reality almost twenty years ago and what Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg seems to have in mind for their recently announced Metaverse, which appears to be aiming at becoming a more advanced version of Second Life, applying the latest technology in virtual and augmented reality. The timing might be right. During Covid-19, society’s mindset toward digital environments significantly changed, with hours of virtual meetings on Zoom, Google Meet, or Microsoft Teams. The question to ask is why might such a Metaverse turn into society’s nightmare?
What are the real questions we should be asking about the Metaverse?
In 2010, we ended our analysis by concluding that users had “nothing to lose but their chains.” Today more seems to be at stake. Assuming that advances in artificial intelligence (AI), automation, and digital transformation leave a substantial share of unemployed people living on some form of universal basic income, one can wonder how they will fill their days. Already more than a decade ago, several Second Life users had stated that they preferred their virtual over their real lives. With a much-improved virtual environment made in Facebook, providing more features and (virtual) opportunities, might not more people prefer to transfer their lives into the Metaverse? How far away are we from a world like the one illustrated in Neal Stephenson’s novel?
For the moment, Facebook has announced that fully realizing the Metaverse will take ten years or more, even though they will spend billions of US dollars to bring it to life. One can also ask whether Facebook will succeed in this endeavor given its history of new product launches – and failures. Yet, this might be the wrong question to ask. Facebook has brought the idea of a virtual metaverse back to the table. If it is not they who achieve it, then some other company will take over.
The real questions must be, what such a development would mean for our society, and whether this is desirable for humanity. How do we best prepare for such an eventual evolution?