The Evolution of the Metaverse
What does the Advent of the PC have to do with the metaverse?
When Facebook announced its name change to Meta, one of my favorite podcasters of all time, Ben Thompson, released an episode of Exponent. While Ben was skeptical of many metaverse champions’ claims, he did bring up a great analogy for Oculus in terms of the personal computer.
Initially, the PC was far too expensive for the average family to afford. It began as a business utility — an enterprise tool. However, it became so powerful and pervasive that it infiltrated our personal lives. The price point continued to fall, and so much consumer software was written that it’s now difficult to imagine life without a personal computer at home (or in our pockets).
Idyllic and Alluring
The ideals underlying Web 3 and the metaverse concept are idyllic, noble, and alluring. Who doesn’t want a user-owned internet? And who doesn’t want to be able to hang out in an immersive digital space where anything is possible? A better way to collaborate and reconnect with friends you no longer see.
Businesses are enslaved to the never-ending pursuit of profits. Infinite growth and revenue are expected, and if a company must make a trade-off to protect users at the expense of profits, there will come a point where even the CEO, board of directors, and any executives will lose to the system of incentives that (1) retain workers with stock and (2) retain workers with cash.
As a result, the government is the only entity that can truly guarantee user protections, but we all know how effective that is. This is nothing new; it is simply a problem we face in modern capitalism with modern tech platforms — and one that a user-owned internet could potentially solve. Moxie, the founder of Signal, has a good articulation of some of these current Web 2 tech platform problems.
The current Web 3 champions are getting ahead of themselves. Because there was such rapid growth during Web 2, the next generation of founders wants to make an even bigger impact, while investors old and new want a chance to get a piece of the moonshot action. Worse, crypto zealots believe — and financially need — the reality of its success to be true, whether or not it is.
I’m skeptical that it will play out the way current supporters predict. For a long time, crypto has been the white-hot focus of SV’s best and brightest, but it has yet to provide any mainstream use case other than ‘buy, HODL, and believe’: a store of value for your financial dreams and wishes. And while some form of the metaverse is very likely, will it be truly decentralized, exist primarily in VR, or will Meta (formerly FB) play a significant role? I have my doubts.
In some ways, the metaverse already exists. Our digital lives are dispersed across a plethora of apps, platforms, and games. I can already build a 3D house, invite my friends over, chat in Discord, and socialize in a completely fictitious world. Every day, millions of gamers do this, not just in Rust, Minecraft, Valheim, or Animal Crossing, but in hundreds of other games as well. The current social anchor is Discord’s voice chat and Slack-adjacent servers/channels, but I’m confident that the interface, integrations, and data portability will improve as the experience evolves. Soon, you’ll be able to stream YouTube videos on the walls of the houses you build in your digital spaces.
It will not be limited to gaming. With digital whiteboards and screen sharing, people will be able to collaborate in real-time. They’ll be reviewing code and running businesses. They will both listen to and create music. In their digital living rooms, they’ll watch movies, sports, stand-up comedy, and live Twitch streams together. They’ll tweet, laugh, learn, and talk nonsense.
The metaverse, in my opinion, is the evolution of the third place, which is our pre-existing digital life when we are at home. The most similar analogy would be the evolution of Discord and the integration of disparate experiences such as Facebook, Slack, YouTube, and so on into some kind of singular, 3D, customizable hangout space.
Mark Zuckerberg claims that the metaverse is already here in the form of popular video games. Virtual reality is centered on creating a digital perception, which many experts believe will be vital to developing an interesting experience and retaining users.
I’m not convinced that this experience can be massively decentralized while also being seamlessly orchestrated, managed, and well-run, or that VR — a luxury, cumbersome, and questionably relevant technology — will be a part of it. Sure, humans will eventually reach a point where VR is not only practical but also affordable and superior to real life in many ways. A full sensory experience, similar to The Matrix or Sword Art Online, in which we are physically connected to the Internet but in our minds, we are jumping, flying, and performing feats of athleticism we could never do in real life. Thereby exploring worlds far grander than our own. But that “VR” is very different from what we have now.