With reports that Facebook Inc. is set to rebrand as a metaverse company, the not-so-new term has made its way into headlines around the world.
The Verge tech news site reported Tuesday that the company, known for its social networks and messaging platforms, will announce a new company name to better reflect its ambitions to build the metaverse.
The move comes as the California-based company faces close scrutiny from lawmakers over the negative effects its platforms have on users, the spread of disinformation and monopoly tendencies.
“Facebook has a lot of reasons for wanting us to look at something else,” said Beth Coleman, professor at the Institute of Communications, Culture, Information and Technology at the University of Toronto.
But beyond Facebook’s legal challenges, experts say the metaverse could be the next frontier of the social web where businesses are building new platforms to hook users.
What is the metaverse?
Like many modern technologies, the idea has its roots in science fiction. Neal Stephenson’s novel Snow accident first mentioned the Metaverse in 1992, describing it as a shared virtual space where users can interact.
It is not a platform or an experience owned by one company. While it’s often used to describe digital worlds in which users can communicate, play, and do business with others, the idea is much broader.
“It’s that kind of catch-all term for everything that seems like something that comes after mobile internet, which came after desktop internet,” said Adi Robertson, senior reporter for The Verge.
Ramona Pringle, associate professor at Ryerson University’s RTA School of Media, says it’s an idea that has been in the works for decades. Virtual spaces inhabited by digital avatars – popularized by the virtual world of Second life in the 2000s – promised to “take our lives back” long before social media had users glued to their phones all day.
The Metaverse as it’s now described would be an evolution of that original idea combined with social media as we know it today, she says.
Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) technologies are expected to become a driving force for virtual worlds by creating immersive experiences for users, and could further blur the lines between real and digital life.
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What will users do there?
Facebook’s vision of the metaverse isn’t far removed from Stephenson’s sci-fi concept.
The company describes it as a “set of virtual spaces where you can create and explore with other people who are not in the same physical space as you.”
But the Metaverse will go beyond providing a space to chat with new and old avatar-based friends. In the video game worlds of Roblox and Fortnite, the early entrants to the popular metaverse among young gamers, pop stars have hosted live concerts, and digital goods are exchanged for in-game currency, for example.
“There’s this desire to be more immersive and… to actively participate in these virtual experiences because we realize we’re going to have to spend a lot more time there and that’s fine with us,” said Annie Zhang, podcast host. Hello metaverse and a senior product designer at Roblox.
Zhang predicts a future with economies that transcend the real world – an idea that began years ago in Second life.
She says content creators could use virtual platforms to sell and publish new music or videos, freeing up some of the constraints of algorithms that they say devalue their work.
Others can look to virtual worlds to buy and sell “land” or other property using cryptocurrencies and non-fungible tokens (NFTs), Zhang said. This is already happening in Decentraland, a platform that uses the Ethereum blockchain.
“It’s a product of the fact that people don’t feel like they have control or understand the systems in which they have to participate,” she said, noting for example fears that younger generations find it difficult to own property in the real world.
Currently, platforms like Roblox and Fortnite operate as walled gardens, managed by the companies that own them. Some imagine a future in the metaverse where users could roam between worlds with a single avatar, carrying goods they have created or own from one platform to another.
Why is Facebook getting involved?
Interest in building the metaverse is likely driven by financial goals and collecting user data for marketing, explains Pringle. She expects businesses to advertise on metaverse platforms, generating revenue for the businesses that host them.
This could make the metaverse “a very compelling, very sticky, and very immersive advertising medium” with users “always being targeted by people who want to sell us products or ideologies,” Pringle said.
A shift to the metaverse also serves as a rebuke to social media. For users unhappy with how social media is “breaking up society” or impacting users’ mental health, companies are promoting their investments in new kinds of experiences as a way forward, Pringle said .
While Facebook’s push into the Metaverse comes at the same time it’s coming under fire, Coleman notes that the company has been laying the groundwork for years.
Facebook bought Oculus, a startup that makes VR headsets, in 2014.
After years of what she calls “mediocre” virtual worlds built by various companies, Coleman says the success of the Metaverse will ultimately depend on which company publishes the “killer app” users flock to.
Given Facebook Inc.’s success in connecting people online – it has over 2.85 billion monthly users on Facebook alone – this could be the company that does just that, she adds.
“If you were to bet on a horse to find out who’s going to make this important not just to a population but to the world, you’d say Facebook has a pretty damn good track record.”
Written by Jason Vermes with files from Sameer Chhabra and Reuters.