Reframing the metaverse: what the word actually means for web3
November 4th, 2022

In 2016, Nick Haslam, a professor of psychology at the University of Melbourne, wrote a research paper exploring the idea of "Concept Creep." The Atlantic offers a great analysis of this concept here. Essentially, Concept Creep is when a term that pertains to a particular idea begins to encompass something tangentially, loosely, or even possibly unrelated. 

This exact phenomenon is what has happened with the concept of the metaverse. What do we think the metaverse is now? Most people think it's a platform in its fledgling form that is mainly used for gaming, socializing, and social media, and few think of it as a place for business or marketing. However, the term has come to mean many more things than initially imagined. Some of these new meanings are specific use cases or platforms created by particular companies. At its core, the metaverse is essentially a set of immersive experiences and worlds enabled by a new medium - 3D graphics. It is another version of the internet but in 3D.

A recent article by CoinDesk stated that Decentraland has 38 daily active users, and The Sandbox has 522. This number is based on a 24-hour snapshot by DappRadar and does not consider users who are not part of transactions, so it is unclear how many DAUs these platforms have. This article discusses the actual utility of the metaverse, with team members from one of the premier crypto-focused asset management firms claiming there is a "lack of product-market fit". I want to point out how much of the headline for this article is clickbait and that the industry expert interviewed is not on the VC side of that asset management firm's business. 

While I have issues with how the writer conducted this analysis, it's easy to see why people need help understanding the utility of the metaverse. It's difficult to separate the idea of the metaverse from social media, notably after Mark Zuckerburg rebranded Facebook to Meta and subsequently spent over $35 billion to make it float. (So far, it doesn't.) Furthermore, most of the current use of current metaverses IS limited to gaming and socialization and primarily caters to those under 18, and thus, who spend less. In summary, in terms of concept creep, the average person believes the metaverse is: a new form of social media or gaming, trivial, flailing, and little else. Perhaps the conceptual equivalent of TVs that claim to produce the "deepest black" while fascinating from the technological standpoint, this new feature changes little if anything in function — an excellent idea with little value to most consumers.

But let's consider the foundations these ideas are built. It becomes easier to imagine a future where the metaverse plays a different role than the one we imagine now — one that's bigger, revolutionary, and potentially an economic juggernaut. As I've spoken about in previous posts, current technological limits hold back the full potential of the metaverse, but that will only be the case for a while. (Speculation indicates we will unlock the full potential of the metaverse in 2040 or thereabouts.) At its core, distilled essence, the metaverse is a visual platform that will host individual's and brand's content over the internet. But its unique offering is shared 3D experiences. 

We should pause and consider this notion. An interactive, immersive, 'in the round' internet is a game changer we can hardly fathom. When the internet became a space the average person could access, it was considered 'neat' but not essential. Fast forward to 2018, in which the internet sector made $2.1 trillion in the US alone - about 10% of the nation's GDP, and that trend is only growing. So labelling the metaverse as a social media platform wildly understates the impact it will have - and the size it will likely grow to. 

At its most stripped-down, most straightforward definition, the metaverse(s) will be a 3D internet visual platform enabled by new technology. (That technology takes the form of new server architectures, new forms of Wi-Fi and cellular connectivity, and the hardware to allow functional 3D displays (Oculus or the like), and the coding/creating of those 3D spaces and platforms.) Today's internet is displayed and interacted with in a rectangular format on our computer or phone. We scroll up and down, read top to bottom, and view videos, photos, and text. We are limited to rigid, right-angle movement on a 2D grid. 3D internet will change that forever.

Furthermore, most current (web2) internet platforms do not allow for shared experiences, do not support 3D graphics, or allow for synchronous events. These limitations are wiped away by a 3D internet. (Does its game-changing potential make more sense now?)

Some points of clarification

Will the metaverse be one platform? No, it will not be, though it's easy to imagine why many are confused about this. After all, Meta (formerly Facebook) presents itself in a singular way, which gives this impression. (The metaverse is also referred to as a singular entity instead of a plural one, which adds to the confusion.) We conceptually link the metaverse to social media, and given how social media is platform-based, we put two and two together. For example, we assume brand X will have a world on company Y's metaverse platform in the same way brand X has an Instagram account or Youtube page. But if we think of the metaverse as a form of 3D internet, we see a world where brand X will have a metaverse in the way they have their own webpage. The brand owns its virtual world and has it developed the same way they currently have a webpage created with the specific features they want. Like today's internet, some metaverses will be public, while some systems are siloed to private organizations, guarded by paywalls, etc.  

Does the metaverse need to be in VR? No, it doesn't. We have millions of screens around us that give us a window into platforms with 3D graphics (think of anything and everything from games to design tools), and we do not need new hardware to use this new medium. Furthermore, it is essential to distinguish between the medium and the access point. The iPhone was a fantastic access point to the internet, but no one ever thought that meant that the internet was Apple's, just as today, anyone making a headset shouldn't be viewed as the owner the metaverse. 

WTF is up with the Meta name change? Yeah… that isn't very clear. It's tantamount to Amazon changing its name to cloud computing. The whole thing has created a lot of noise which is a good and a bad thing. The critical thing to remember here is that Meta doesn't own the metaverse. Let me repeat: Meta doesn't own and isn't synonymous with the metaverse. They don't own the 3D medium and don't produce the only hardware option to access VR (if that is something you want to do). They are another company trying to adapt to this new form of the internet. (We could speculate that Facebook rebranded to distance themselves from their past or possibly to blur users' ability to make this distinction and assume all metaverse content and activity is linked to Meta… but that is only speculation.)

What does this mean for you, the user? For the casual user, you will see new exciting experiences you can witness with others in 3D. You will see websites of greater utility as they can do so much more with this new medium (a topic discussed in depth in the next post). For creators, we will see increased ownership as their metaverse can exist outside of a platform (social media, gaming, or otherwise). But we must accept that content creation will be harder unless the necessary tooling is created (that is where companies like the one I work for, WordsEye, come in). Creators will no longer have to deal with the controls put in place by platforms; their works will be theirs, and they can link to them in the same way you can click a link to read this blog. You won't be required to enter a platform to access content in the way you have to log into Facebook, or Twitter to see a post on their platforms. 

Closing thoughts

Perhaps the easiest way to get this message across is to think of the structures in your city. You can imagine a building: floor, walls, ceiling, windows, doors. What are you picturing? A house? An office? There are apartment buildings, parking garages, movie theatres, grocery stores, etc. Each is a structure but has a specific purpose. 

Webpages are like these structures. The Nike webpage has a very different purpose than the BBC webpage; they are both web pages but built with completely different formats and frameworks for completely different uses. This building for specific use cases is the same as the structures in your city. An apartment building is built to house people, while a movie theatre is built to give users the best viewing experience. 

All are structures but are entirely different constructions due to their purpose and function. The metaverse will be similar; each virtual world will be a structure. For example, Amazon will design the virtual world for Whole Foods to help you complete your grocery shopping, which will be different from the virtual world that United Airlines builds. Each will be accessible but optimize the 3D medium differently to help you have a better experience. 

As stated above (and all over the online conversation around the metaverse), social media and gaming will certainly have a comfortable home in the metaverse. But in the same way that you wouldn't mistake Instagram for the internet, I hope you can now distinguish these limited concepts of the metaverse from the enormity it will grow to become.

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