We’re talking about the Metaverse in the wrong way.
Let’s start at the beginning.
When Neal Stephenson first used “Metaverse” in his 1992 novel, Snow Crash, the Internet as we know it today was very much in its infancy. The concept of the Metaverse was literally Science Fiction.
The term Web1 was not being used; instead, we talked about the Internet as a worldwide network and, later, the World Wide Web. We entered Cyberspace, surfed the Web, and rode the Information Superhighway.
Since the 90’s we’ve gone through multiple iterations of the Internet, defined by the meteoric rise and fall of Netscape, AOL’s dominance as one of the only Internet Providers, and the emergence of social networking sites like Friendster, Myspace and later, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter.
We’re at the beginning now of a really important shift in how we use technology in business and society. This shift can be defined in a number of ways, but as the term Web3 gets thrown around a lot at the moment, so do other related concepts which feel enormously abstract and complex to the everyday professional.
We are, however, becoming familiar with terms like blockchain, NFTs, airdrops, crypto, decentralization, tokenization, virtual currencies, DAOs and, of course, the Metaverse, which itself is awash with technical terms like VR, XR and AR.
All of these are being used to define how we talk about both the ideological and technological concepts related to the space, but what do they really mean, how are we defining the Metaverse, why do some people believe it’s the new Internet, and is there, in fact, a more helpful way of talking about it?
As we’ve said, the term Metaverse has been around for a couple of decades, but it was not being used in the mainstream until October 2021, when, as we all know, Facebook made the decision to change its company name to Meta and announced that it would be investing all of its R&D efforts to bring the Metaverse to mainstream users.
Suddenly, people were asking the question, what is the Metaverse? Literally. During that month there were about 2.62 million Google searches on the term ‘metaverse’, a massive increase from the previous month.
So what is it? Or at least, how are people defining it today?
Here are three definitions from the people who are probably most qualified to talk about the subject and who are also outspoken in their beliefs that it represents the future of the Internet.
The Metaverse is a convergence of physical and digital. Think of it as the successor of what comes next on the internet. It’s like your digital lifestyle catching up to your physical life. – Cathy Hackl, Chief Metaverse Officer, Futures Group
The metaverse is a parallel virtual plane of existence that spans all digital technologies and will even come to control much of the physical world. This construct helps explain another common description of the metaverse as a 3D internet – Matthew Ball
Author of The Metaverse: And How It Will Revolutionize Everything
The [Metaverse] will be a wild, organic, and amazing outgrowth of what we think of today as the internet and web. When you see images and diagrams of the internet today, it looks like a biologic construct, full of neuron-like connections and the emergence of proto life. – Rony Abovitz, Founder, Magic Leap
So based on what we’ve heard so far, do we think this is the new Internet?
Honestly, it’s really hard to say, and it’s important that we don’t get ahead of ourselves or get too caught up in the hype. If you were to ask Elon Musk or Jack Dorsey, they would say that the Metaverse is nothing more than a marketing buzzword. However, it’s hard to believe that an industry which is predicted to grow to over $600B by 2030 is just a buzzword.
Also, Tech CEOs like Satya Nadella from Microsoft are bullish on the Metaverse, as evidenced by the fact that they just acquired Activision Blizzard for $68.7 billion.
My advice to all of us during this time is to listen to all these different perspectives. Hype cycles come and go, but if the Metaverse can provide meaningful value, it will be here to stay.
I believe, however, there is a more helpful way to talk about the Metaverse. A way for us business and marketing people to talk about it without getting caught up in utopian (or dystopian) fantasies and technological jargon.
I believe we need to talk much less about VR and whether we’re headed for a future that plays out like that in Spielberg’s adaptation of the book Ready Player One. Instead, I think we need to zag a little, while the futurists zig.
Let’s listen to the rhythms of the past so we can understand our present and future.
Let’s think back to when Facebook made another huge announcement and shift in their business: the shift to mobile.
It was 2012, the iPhone had been around for six years, and most of us already had a smartphone. Adoption of Facebook’s mobile first user experience was relatively seamless. It also catapulted them from $18 to $75 per share in less than six months.
This is what Mark Zuckerberg said at the time…
“Today, our society has reached a tipping point. We live at a moment when the majority of people in the world have access to the internet or mobile phones — the raw tools necessary to start sharing what they’re thinking, feeling and doing with whomever they want. Facebook aspires to build the services that give people the power to share and help them once again transform many of our core institutions and industries.” – Mark Zuckerberg, 2012
Now, let’s go back to last year when he announced Facebook’s re-brand and their commitment to the Metaverse. This is what Mark said then:
“When I started Facebook, we mostly typed text on websites. When we got phones with cameras, the internet became more visual and mobile. As connections got faster, video became a richer way to share experiences. We’ve gone from desktop to web to mobile; from text to photos to video. But this isn’t the end of the line. The next platform will be even more immersive — an embodied internet where you’re in the experience, not just looking at it. We call this the metaverse, and it will touch every product we build.
– Mark Zuckerberg, 2021
This feels fairly iterative right? This feels like a natural evolutionary step. However, there’s a big difference in these two moments in time.
When Meta rebranded Facebook and Mark made his very public bet that this was going to be centrally important to their business, almost no one was in the Metaverse, at least not as the term is defined by most people, whereas years earlier when he announced the shift to mobile, almost everyone at that time was already using their smartphones to access the Internet.
This is why talking about the Metaverse as something that we have yet to realize or as something that sounds futuristic is so problematic, because how can we talk about the Metaverse, especially as marketers, if we’re not actually in it yet?
Our entire experience of the Internet to date–how we use it, how it has become centrally important to our lives, and how it has impacted society and technology–has been the result of small incremental steps over an almost 30-year period.
There have been major innovations, to be sure, but adoption has actually been smoother and more gradual than you might think. That was, of course, until 2020 and the global pandemic.
During the first three months of the Pandemic, we saw the single biggest shifts in human behavior since the Internet first went mainstream. Literally billions of people were forced to work from home and use video communication tools like Zoom, Google Hangouts and Microsoft Teams to communicate with their colleagues, friends and family.
We went from spending 6-8 hours a day interacting with people in-person, or via a blend of email and conference calls, to spending almost all of our time communicating through live video.
To me, this shift in behavior was a giant leap towards a future in which we will spend most of our lives communicating in and between both digital and physical spaces, characterized today by the familiar Zoom-like experience.
But if we continue along this path of adoption and technological iteration, it’s not hard to imagine that at some point in the near future, the Zoom experience will be better, richer, and perhaps even 3D.
So, rather than go with Matthew Ball’s or Cathy Hackl’s definition, I would prefer to describe the Metaverse in this way:
“The Metaverse is the seamless movement between the digital and physical spaces where we spend time interacting, engaging, and communicating in synchronous and asynchronous experiences.”
If the Metaverse is the next iteration of how we connect and engage, then guess what? We’re already in it. It’s not predominantly 3D or virtual reality yet, but it is here, and it’s being used by billions of people.
So, if I’m right, then the bet that Mark and others should be making–or at least the way to communicate what the Metaverse is–should be grounded in what we are using today and how it will evolve, not in something that feels dystopian and more like a Sci-Fi movie.