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What is the metaverse?

Facebook is reportedly betting the future of the company on the metaverse, changing the name of its umbrella company in the process. Meanwhile, supposedly NFTs are the revenue model for the metaverse, making $2.6bn in sales in the first six months of 2021 alone.

This is all well and good, but what the hell is the metaverse?

The complicated answer is: it depends on who you're talking to.

The metaverse as most people are talking about it right now is something to do with an interconnected set of virtual worlds, which may or may not be accessible via virtual reality (hence Facebook’s interest: after all, they own Oculus). The idea is that they’d be interoperable to the point where these worlds can lead to each other, and where you can bring objects from space to space - theoretically represented via NFTs.

This particular vision of the metaverse is probably not accurate. It depends on a few different important prerequisites: virtual reality becoming not just mainstream but near-ubiquitous for more than just games (when this is far from true even for games today), NFTs evolving to become truly powerful object primitives for interoperability rather than cartoon pictures of apes that are sometimes used for money laundering, and enough people buying into this new version of the internet that they build worlds, objects, and applications with wild abandon.

Another version of the metaverse is a “digital overlay for our reality” - or as I’ve often described social media, a backchannel for real life. Here, rather than interconnected worlds, we’re maybe talking about something closer to digital platforms that add value to reality. This fits a little closer to Facebook, which could already be thought of in this way.

The thing is, none of these platforms exist. It’s a wishful, top-down version of a future internet that is little more than vaporware today. Moreover, although some of the technologies in play this time round are novel, the overall vision has been around for a long time. It’s a bit like a flying car: something we’ve been promised forever but has never quite come to fruition.

Which isn’t to say that it’s a completely fruitless endeavor. There are lots of good things that could come out of a push for the metaverse. The most obvious of them is interoperability: while internet platforms have operated as silos to date, an interconnected metaverse depends on true interoperability. Those worlds have to work together, and those objects have to be moveable from place to place. The financial incentives also have to be aligned with keeping the platform open. That means building real, open technologies to allow those things to happen, which may well enable other kinds of applications that we haven’t conceived of yet.

Still, when people talk about the metaverse online right now, it’s important to remember that it doesn’t exist. Unlike the web, say, it’s not a thing. Facebook is clearly serious about it, and lots of money has been thrown at projects like Decentraland. But it’s highly likely that if you ask twelve people to define what the metaverse is, you’ll get twelve different definitions. In that sense, the metaverse is science fiction: the stuff of aspiration.

I’d put money on the actual future of the internet being something that nobody really predicted, emerging from an unexpected place. That’s part of why the internet is such an empowering platform to work on. But again - there’s a lot of value in plugging away at a mission, even if it turns out that most of that value is in the journey rather than the end result. I don’t think the metaverse is a real outcome - frankly, it just smells too much of BS to me - but the protocols, communities, and business models it leads to may be.

I’m fascinated to find out what Facebook’s definition of the metaverse is. I’m also interested to see which challengers enter into the market with a strong, competing vision. Most of all, of course, I’m interested to see what actually happens, and what the future of the platform we all use turns out to be.

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