Whether you’re an up-to-date netizen or more of an IRL person in the touch-grass world, you’ve likely heard of the metaverse. It’s been spelled “the metaverse” or “the Metaverse” with the capitalized seriousness of a proper noun—as if it’s floating to the left of the North Pole and you have to believe in it to see it. What exactly is this elusive concept, and what might it mean for us?
According to McKinsey & Co., an American management consulting firm, the metaverse is an internet where users navigate digital spaces while enjoying a sense of immersion (in real life or in a way that feels real to your physical experience). This broad category can include things like the augmented reality of Pokémon Go, holographic 3D visuals that project from a device into your living room, or a seamless integration of work and play with interconnected digital spaces.
By such broad terms, the metaverse can carry different definitions that may all be true at once. It is an augmented and virtual reality to enhance the gaming experience. It can be an evolution of the “internet of things” to meld platforms and devices, with digital cryptocurrency for both the exchange of goods and services (its original ideal) and Wild West no-holds-barred investing (what it ended up being). Or maybe it’s even Mark Zuckerberg’s invention to advance the corporatization of public forums in a crawling quest to control whole pillars of democracy. You know, the good and the bad, depending on how one wields the tools of cyberspace.
It’s hard to say if we are already in the metaverse, or if the idea is too ephemeral to become a household name. Many digital platforms and movements promised to change the game for how people interact with the real world. Frenzied buzzwords for internet-evolutionary concepts, like NFTs in 2021 or Kony 2012, encouraged internet users to disrupt the real-life investing economy and organize real-life mass assemblies of people united for a cause. They had brief surges in popularity, but their failure to maintain enough critical mass of people (NFTs) or longevity (#Kony2012) quickly caused them to fade into niche communities or obscurity. If the metaverse can sustain both, it will be easier to see how this concept will change the landscape of the internet again, and likely the real world.
Now that the internet has been in the public sphere for a little over three decades, historians are beginning to assign eras to its periods. Many suggest that the metaverse could be a feature marking the dawn of the Web3 time period. If the metaverse ends up aligning with predictions on what Web3 could become, we’re looking at a blockchain-based, decentralized web that sees smooth compatibility between the Internet and reality. The internet is a very abstract concept, but it is still firmly grounded in tangible objects and places. Websites, apps, and software programs operate from physical servers that are subject to the laws of the country they are in. Questions arise about melding the real with the digital on a scale from the minute person to broad law and geopolitical considerations. Could we one day outsource house party planning to an algorithm so it invites friends from different friend groups, then queues a sick playlist to match the vibe as it changes in real time? Would a truly decentralized metaverse be a self-governed land, or would it fall under a catch-all international ruling, like the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea? The metaverse has been an adventure setting in sci-fi movies and a cautious curiosity in tech-related news; what if the future makes the choose-your-own-adventure, at-your-own-risk sci-fi a reality?
Unlike other discussions in tech like ChatGPT or the eerie accuracy with which the TikTok algorithm can therapize your deepest vulnerabilities, it is hard to pin down the terms of the metaverse as a new… platform? Collection of integrated apps? A whole mindset paradigm shift in how we navigate the internet and real life? And boy, are we ever good at accepting the terms and conditions without reading them.