If the internet is a reservoir, the biggest source of incoming water is user-generated content (UGC). One would assume (as do the big players in the space) that this dynamic will continue as the internet becomes more sophisticated and new technologies emerge. But as with all things technological, it’s more complicated than that. And while the promise of a turbocharged internet, complete with metaverses and 3D virtual reality, is cause for justified excitement, an enormous UGC problem threatens to hobble this emerging frontier. Will engineers and coders break through this wall before the internet - and its 5,000,000,000 users - crash into it?
UGC is the lifeblood of social media platforms and has changed how we consume, create content, and interact with the internet as a whole. UGC allows creators to present uniquely honest and emotional stories, offering perspectives that are free of the biases and constraints of traditional media creators like news agencies, government departments, etc. As a tool for business, it can enable brands to organically market their products (like Coke’s ‘Share a Coke’ campaign). As a tool for human empowerment, UGC can also play a part in fighting tyranny or getting news out of warzones. Consider the critical role it played as the world witnessed the Arab Spring over a decade ago and the invasion of Ukraine currently. The role and value of UGC in the web as we experience it now cannot be overstated. But what will it look like as we move into web 3.0 and an internet era defined by the metaverse?
The term ‘web 3.0’ encompasses many things that will change our interaction with the internet, from protecting IP rights to changing server infrastructure. However, for our purposes here, let’s focus on what web 3.0 means for UGC. Web 3.0 will see a move from social media platforms as we know them to the metaverse, or at least the addition of new metaverse platforms, a new form of online interaction and community. Content for the metaverse will be immersive, not just interactive, as it will be built in 3D. This new medium will open the door to new types of experiences, new types of UGC, and new creators. UGC will grow to include 3D models, 3D spaces, and 3D experiences.
The exact function, experience, tools, and innovations that the metaverse will put at our fingertips (and eyelids) cannot fully be known at this moment, but what do we know? Making 3D content is not easy. Unlike today’s modalities of creating and engaging with 2D UGC, to build 3D content, one must possess a deep technological understanding and have access to advanced, complex, and expensive software like Blendr or Maya. For context, Instagram has claimed they have over 500 million daily active users, while 3D model marketplace Sketchfab hit 5 million community members in 2021, 9 years after being founded. That bottleneck threatens to constrain this new technological space, possibly even jeopardizing its viability entirely.
Platforms may build excellent infrastructure to place content, but where will the content come with which to fill it? The world seems to be assuming content will suddenly pop up… which it will. But will UGC be part of it? As discussed above, creating, engaging with, and viewing UGC content is straightforward and simple for the average user on web 2.0 platforms, but it won’t be in web 3.0. Furthermore, the content users are accustomed to creating is improvisational (read: low quality, low concept), which is incompatible with the level of effort immersive 3D metaverse content creation will require. It can take years to master 3D graphics tools, which are ‘only’ the building blocks of the format; one still needs to assemble this into an experience. To do that, you will need game development skills, coding skills to bring your intended experience into reality, a deep understanding of game physics, animation, and how to build non-playable characters. You’ll also need to be able to test the experience as you would a game to make sure it doesn’t malfunction and optimize its performance so it runs smoothly. The list goes on.
However, there is light at the end of the tunnel. We are at a point with 3D similar to where we were 20 years ago with pictures. The leap from PhotoBucket to Instagram took less than 7 years. The rate at which technology improves is continually accelerating, so expect 3D UGC platforms to arrive sooner rather than later. We don’t entirely know the utility of the metaverse yet; it appears to be most ideally suited for brands, entertainment, and gaming and less functional as a social media space, but that remains to be seen.
Whatever form UGC takes in the metaverse, it will be an exciting new terrain to explore. Doubtless, it will include animated 3D models and 3D environments while opening the door to some amazingly exciting things. AI brains for non-playable characters coupled with chatbot capabilities could respond to user actions and inputs and enhance the user's experience in the metaverse. Weather conditions in your virtual experience could be duplicated from your physical location to enhance the sense of immersion. And that’s just scratching the surface. We are most likely a decade or more out from the wildest possibilities of the metaverse and virtual reality being manifested, so some tempering of expectations is advisable. It will not look or feel like today's internet, but it’s a safe bet it will be worth the wait.
If you are interested in creating 3D content, you may find some of the following resources interesting: