Wiser! #43 (Premium): When Facebook, the world's largest social network, renames to "Meta", it positions the Metaverse as the Next Computing Platform, aka Web3, the next generation of the Internet.
Insights: Premium Content
The following article from the Insights Series is exclusive content for paying subscribers to the Wiser! Newsletter. If you would like to read the whole article, check out the options presented at the end of the free preview.
The term "Metaverse" has been bubbling under for a while now, but it made front-page news this week when Mark Zuckerberg announced the rebranding of Facebook to Meta. Even my mum has heard of the Metaverse now!
You may have wondered what's the big deal and why this story should be interested? The reason is that, for many, the Metaverse is the start of a new era for the Internet. For Facebook to make such a bold step is a huge bet that this next generation of the Internet will be the "next computing platform".
To be clear, the Metaverse is still a conceptual vision in many respects, but there is little doubt that it is coming in some shape or form. The other thing to note is that the Metaverse is not a singular entity or "a thing", any more than the Internet is not a singular thing. Nobody owns the Internet any more than any commercial enterprise (such as Facebook/Meta) will own the Metaverse.
The Metaverse is a collective term for the next iteration of the Internet. And the narrative goes like this...
- First, there was the WorldWideWeb. From the birth of the Internet through to the mod-noughties, the web was "passive", in that users merely read, received and consumed the information they found on web pages. It was one-way traffic.
- Then we had the 2nd generation of the web from around 2005 up until the present day. This is the Internet we are using right now. This version 2.0 can be defined as interactive, engaging and responsive, thanks to social media and redefining the world of commerce.
- The next era of the Internet, or Web3, is the so-called "Metaverse". The promise of the next generation of the Internet is to be immersive, tactile, interoperable and decentralised (don't worry about the jargon, it should make a little more sense by the end).
The latest digital technologies will come together to create new ways to interact with and experience the Internet. These technologies include;
- virtual and augmented reality,
- 3D graphics,
- 5G networks,
- blockchain technology,
- cryptocurrency, and
- new human/machine interfaces such as digital wearables
- and brain-computer interfaces.
Facebook's rebranding as Meta
Mark Zuckerberg's move to pivot the $900 billion social network in a new direction is a monumental shift and the most significant signal that the Metaverse is real (sic). The cynics, there are many, believe that this is a huge deflection tactic to get away from the mounting scrutiny on the negative side of Facebook's ad business model.
Whilst others speculate that this is The Zuck's attempt to win back the younger demographic (tomorrow's adult users of the Internet) who have turned their back on Facebook for Snap and TikTok.
The origins of Facebook's journey to the Metaverse can be traced back to their acquisition of Oculus for $2 billion in 2014. In 2018, an internal document written by a senior exec in the Oculus division made the case for a Metaverse strategy. The paper laid out a vision for Facebook to own the virtual reality market with a product that would shut out future competition (a strategy at the centre of the anti-trust investigation into Facebook's acquisition of WhatsApp and Instagram.)
This is a huge gamble for many reasons, one of them being that Facebook has not shown itself to be the most innovative of the BigTech giants. Or the most resourceful when it comes to delivering new technology, features and functions. Whether it can refocus its efforts sufficiently onto shaping and delivering the next computing platform is a question of much speculation.
In practical terms, Facebook's announcement will see the separation of their corporate reporting into 2 distinct entities;
- Family of Apps, which is Facebook, Messenger, Instagram, WhatsApp, and
- Facebook Reality Labs, a collection of business units that range from virtual reality to augmented reality to electromyography systems. In 2021, Facebook will spend $10 billion on Facebook Reality Labs.
Which could also be called "old world" and "new world". Because the debate within and without Facebook is about the extent to which the ad-based social media model has a limited shelf life. The Facebook experiment is increasingly exposing that the harms outweigh the benefits and it is a matter of time before it is overhauled, reconfigured and, most likely, brought to an end (yes, that's right, IMHO, I believe that by the end of this decade Facebook will be nothing like it is today if it exists at all).
Arguably the Francis Haugen whistleblower moment is a turning point and a catalyst for the unpacking of Facebook. In response to the Facebook announcement, US representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted this,
Personally, I don't believe that regulatory scrutiny is enough of a reason for Facebook morphing into Meta. No matter how much whistleblowing or objective reality there is behind the allegations that Facebook knows all about the harm they cause and chose to do nothing about it, the metaverse is still in a nascent state.
Renaming the company AWAY from "Facebook", IS a big deal and a massive gamble for Zuckerberg, especially when it is a service used by over a third of the world's population.
For me, the move to Meta is as much about acknowledging and embracing the technologies and trends behind crypto, Ethereum, NFTs, smart contracts, DAOs and blockchain technology, as it is about repositioning VR headsets as cool.
The logic of my thesis is that virtual reality is nothing new. Games like Second Life have been around for at least 2 decades, providing in-game marketplaces for players to trade and make money. What's new is the emergence of crypto platforms with digital tokens and NFTs that enable new online economies to be created in ways that they couldn't before.
IMHO, The Zuck's pivot to Meta is about embracing blockchain-enabled economies, cryptocurrencies and digital asset ownership.
As for Meta, it'll never be THE Metaverse anymore than Google is THE Internet. But it is going to have a good go at it! And they've made the first move. Now, we will have to wait and see if Mark Zuckerberg can deliver his version of it.
Mark Zuckerberg talks Metaverse
Support the Wiser! Newsletter
If you're getting value, gaining insight and enjoying the information in this issue, you could show your appreciation by clicking the button below and Buying Me A Coffee.
It's an easy to use gifting service that lets you buy virtual cups of coffee for €2 each. All the proceeds go towards keeping the free issue of Wiser! free for you.
What is the Metaverse?
The Metaverse not only accurately interprets what you input, but actually understands what you convey. It's like this; have you ever written a text or message or email and the other person has misinterpreted it? Of course you have, we all have. Because you can not convey understanding with certainty in an email only information. In the Metaverse, "it" will understand you.
Origins of the Metaverse
In the 1992 sci-fi classic, Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson wrote of a 21st-century world with remarkable foresight for the world we actually live in today. This is a line from the book, considered to be the defining moment for today's Metaverse;
"he's in a computer-generated universe that his computer is drawing onto his goggles and pumping into his earphones. In the lingo, this imaginary place is known as the Metaverse"
Snow Crash tells the story of a dystopian world that is so shitty outside that everyone wants to live inside a shiny virtual one. The world has suffered an economic crash caused by hyperinflation of the USD that brought all major economies to their knees. The US government over-printed fiat money to compensate for the switch to "electronic money used for encrypted transactions".
(Two things about this last paragraph: first, this book was published 17 years before the first Bitcoin was mined. Second, during this pandemic the US Gov has printed more money than in its entire history, about $4.5 trillion).
Stephenson's surprisingly accurate vision for the future is centred on a virtual-reality based Internet that had evolved to look like a giant computer game. Real people live as virtual representations of themselves in a virtual world. These virtual versions of themselves were called avatars, which is now the accepted term for a digital representation after it was popularised by Snow Crash.
Defining the metaverse
This is the tricky bit. The concept of the metaverse is a world that is not defined or limited by physical space, distance or objects. However, the metaverse is much more than just a 3D virtual reality world you see through a pair of glasses the size of a house brick strapped to your face. Virtual reality is part of it, but not the whole story.
Today, computer games provide the best examples of digital worlds without the limits of physical space. 3D game Fortnite is probably the best representation of the Metaverse, followed by the likes of Beat Saber through virtual reality headsets, or Roblox on smartphones and tablets. But the Metaverse is not all about Gaming.
Making virtual reality real
You want to see Coldplay perform their new album in concert. In the physical world, you could buy a ticket and go. But you live in Madrid and they're performing in Buenos Aires. So you buy a live stream ticket and watch it from your living room. In a 2D experience that is controlled by the TV producer creating the stream. You get what you're given.
In the Metaverse version of the concert, you get to go and experience the concert the way you want to experience it. Without leaving your living room. In the Metaverse version of the gig, you can have the best seat in the house, walk around the concert venue at will, and chat, socialise and dance with your friends (who could all be physically located anywhere in the world).
You want to keep a memory from the concert so you visit the online merchandise store. There you can buy digital goods using cryptocurrency in your digital wallet. Every purchase comes as an NFT, which acts as a digital record of ownership.
Now, let's say you buy a Coldplay concert t-shirt in the store. The t-shirt is dynamically adjusted to fit the dimensions of your avatar, which is based on your physical attributes. If you want an actual t-shirt to wear in real life, it will be made to measure and posted to you. Meanwhile, you put the digital version of the t-shirt into your virtual holdall and take it with you to wear at another time on another platform.
This is the key bit. It's known as "interoperability" and it means the ability to take digital items wherever you go on the internet. You can't do this today. Try taking your Twitter data and using it on Facebook or Pinterest. You can't.
Background reading from Wiser!
Interoperability and decentralization
It's more jargon (sorry), but it's important jargon to wrap your head around because interoperability is the holy grail for the Metaverse. And decentralisation will redefine many of the things we take for granted in today's internet.
The concept of interoperability is that you will be able to move your data, possessions and identity seamlessly between platforms and systems in the Metaverse. The issue is that today's BigTech and social media platforms have built a walled garden around each user, inside which they then monetise (you) by targeting ads to suit their profile of you. This is the advertising business model that drives everything that's "free".
In the Metaverse, this business model is flipped on its head.
Today's tech platforms will not be enriching themselves on your data like they do today. Because the user owns their data, not them. This means they can take the data with them when they move from one system to another. They will even be able to monetise their own data and determine how it will be used and by whom. This is where decentralised technologies like blockchain and cryptocurrencies come in.
Blockchain is a decentralised and distributed ledger. What that means is that multiple copies of the same data is held in multiple places run by multiple entities, all tied together and secured by a principle known as consensus. Your data is not in the control of a single, centralised entity, like Facebook or Twitter. Blockchain-based systems could be used to provide users with greater control of their data.
Which way will the Metaverse go?
There are basically two ways the Metaverse will go.
One is that it will become an overlay on the real world, just like Pokemon Go, but with augmented reality goggles. The other is to evolve into a digital ecosystem of virtual worlds that users can move between, live virtual lives and have experiences that are not confined to the physical reality.
Right now, the influence and control of the Metaverse is up for grabs. It is no surprise that the organisation (and man) with the greatest ability to influence and control the World's population unlike any other organisation or individual in the history of humankind...is going all-in on the Metaverse.
Facebook is spending zealously to establish itself as the King in a centralized Kingdom called Metaverse. Meanwhile, others envision the Metaverse as a decentralized utopia in which players freely traverse myriad platforms, taking their own digital items, and valuable data, with them.
Who will win? That is the trillion-dollar question I will try and answer in Part 2, the next instalment on the Metaverse, coming soon.
The Metaverse is an alien life form
As a lifelong Bowie fan, I thought I'd finish with the 1999 interview with David Bowie by Jeremy Paxman. Bowie's intuition seems remarkably prophetic.
Bowie: "The potential of what the Internet is going to do to society both good and bad is unimaginable. I think we're actually on the cusp of something exhilarating and terrifying."
Paxman: "It's just the tool though isn't it?"
Bowie: "No it's not, no, no it's an alien life-form."
Sharing is Caring
Dip into the archives
Mark Zuckerberg's 2004 interview about TheFaceBook
Insight and Information
Sources of related reading and watching
The Metaverse Primer - 9 explainer articles by Matthew Ball
The Rise of the Metaverse. Engelsberg Ideas
Roblox shows new bits of the metaverse to its developers. Venturebeat
The Third Wave. Tony Parisi
Facebook’s vision of the metaverse has a critical flaw. The Verge
Immersys white paper - an immersive 3D NFT Metaverse. Immersys
Rock, Paper, Scissors, Says Go! BitMex
What is Spatial Web and how will it transform the Internet. MirrorView
Digitalax Is Racing to Build an OS for Digital Fashion in the Metaverse. Decrypt
The Metaverse value chain. Jon Radoff (blogpost)
FitTech - virtual fashion fitting technology by Unreal Engine
Microsoft’s new Mesh platform turns your remote coworkers into holograms. Popular Science