Is the metaverse the future of social media?
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This week I have, against my will, been thinking about the metaverse.
Pretty much everything that I’ve ever thought about the metaverse has been against my will, but I decided that it can only be ignored so long. It is the biggest gamble in technology right now, and I think that makes it, by extension, the biggest gamble in digital media.
We’ve just passed the first anniversary of Facebook’s rebrand as Meta. That move was, at least in part, a crisis management option triggered after a wave of bad publicity about Facebook’s trustworthiness, its infiltration by foreign governments, and its decline as a fashionable brand amongst its key demographics. But it was also a clear signal: social media platforms have a shelf life. None have ever lasted as long as Facebook already, and it was time for caterpillar to become butterfly.
The butterfly, in this case, was an idea for radically reshaping the internet, not as a place held at arms’ length, but as somewhere that we inhabit. The investment in Meta has run to the many billions of dollars, and Zuckerberg has said that he is expecting the platform to lose billions more on the project over the next few years. The company’s stock price has fallen 60% in the past year, and they’ve announced a freezing hire. In a bad era for Big Tech, Meta has become the poster boy of that turbulence.
And yet, what Meta is trying to do is so outlandish, so cartoonishly big, that it almost defies regular economic principles. It is the plan of a Bond villain, locked away in an underground lair, trying to bend society to his digitising whims. If you want to release a new photo sharing app or music streaming service, and that loses a ton of cash, well, chances are that’s an indictment of the idea or the execution (or both). If you want to irreversibly change global habits of work and socialisation, and that has teething problems, well, that’s kind of to be expected.
All the same, while I admire the ambition (admire is perhaps the wrong word – substitute “am terrified of” instead) I think that the metaverse is a bad idea. Last week I wrote a long blog on Medium outlining why I felt like the metaverse just doesn’t make good technological sense, so I won’t repeat all that here. You can read if interested. The essential premise, based on having spent 3-hours listening to Joe Rogan interviewing the Meta CEO, was that technological advances have always coded an anti-technology sentiment into their leap forward. The aeroplane changed the world because it unlocked our potential to visit far-flung places. The telegram changed the world because it allowed people , companies, nation states to communicate across seas and mountains and deserts. The internet has changed the world, in many ways, by streamlining the clunkiest of IRL experiences: Wikipedia is easier than a library, Amazon is easier than a shopping mall, social media is easier than scrawling on the wall of public toilets. Etc. The metaverse, for me, doesn’t have an obvious issue to solve or an obvious potential to unlock. It is, instead, a fairly clumsy extension of the internet – an extension for extension’s sake – but one that requires massive uptake to become viable. I don’t see it.
But anyway, it was while looking at the situation with the metaverse, and listening to the discussion between Rogan and Zuckerberg, that I began to think more seriously about the question of “what is social media?” Zuckerberg was making the claim, in the podcast, that video games (and video games developers) have approached this question themselves, integrating ever more social functions into their products. The game plan is simple: get loads of users hooked on your product, then introduce a bunch of features that mean they don’t ever have to leave.
He used Fortnite and Roblox as his example, which are published by Epic Games and the Roblox Corporation respectively. I suspect these were quite telling choices, as neither game has a relationship with Activision Blizzard, the gaming mega-corporation which is a legitimate competitor to Meta in the VR space. They currently publish games like Call of Duty, Candy Crush, Guitar Hero and World of Warcraft and are due to be acquired by Microsoft, as soon as it gets competition approval. It has long been said that gaming is the gateway drug to the metaverse, and this is clearly something that the bods at Microsoft believe.
Anyway, I’m more interested, just now, in the question of how services that you don’t think are social medias – or immersive experiences – turn into them. It’s a good thing for digital media publishers and entrepreneurs to be thinking about. We have all exhausted the potential of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc over the past few years. They produce frustratingly erratic results, and are over-populated by hawkers. I cannot move on Twitter for people trying to flog me their podcast. So here are a few things that are actually social media opportunities, even if you might not have thought of them as such:
Fortnite: The battle royale video game is an interesting format to bring to this sort of discussion. On paper, you would want to keep people playing for as long as possible, whereas a battle royale tends to involve matches of 10 to 20 minutes. Either way, Epic Games realised, as the popularity of that golden goose grew, that they could integrate a lot of features that would make Fortnite a more holistic experience. These include creative modes, where you can just bum around with friends, or create your own map, and party chat, a form of voice chat that allows players to play together or separately, and remain in communication throughout.
WhatsApp: We think of WhatsApp (owned by Meta) as a communications service, the logical progression from SMS messaging. The reality is that WhatsApp has become used as a group messaging service not dissimilar from internet fora of the mid-00s. Like-minded people who may, or may not, know each other IRL, chatting, sharing memes etc. It has had excellent uptake across age ranges and demographics, far more so than messaging apps, like Telegram, which are more transparently social network adjacent. By stealth, WhatsApp has come a social media platform that we all use.
Below-the-line comments: As some of you will know, I write TV reviews. The publication I write for allows below-the-line commenting (something that not all do these days, for complicated legal reasons). I would say that my reviews tend to pick-up somewhere between 3 and 50 comments – these comments are left by roughly the same sort of people, over and over. The Daily Mail comments are much worse: hundreds or thousands of comments on each piece, left by people who spend much of their online existence in the comments section. This is seen as a very “Boomer” use of the internet, but it’s a curious one – and far from unique. Small communities emerge like bacterial blooms in these spaces, giving the Daily Mail (or whoever) an incredible, but hard to use, little community.
Waze: A route-planning and traffic app that relies upon its users to input data, seems like something that is headed for disaster. But Waze works – in fact, it works better than the market leader, Google Maps. Somehow it manages to incentivize that data inputting through an almost utopian sense of community. Absent are the trolls that would ruin the service (reporting speed cameras everywhere, suggesting there are traffic pile-ups on every other road) and instead you get a social experience, where users might have a very rigid input/output function but do get to experience that nebulous connection with other road users out there.
Yelp: Are recommendations sites social media platforms? On the surface of it, they seem much more like publishing mechanisms. That’s until you realise that for all the millions of people who use these sites to read reviews, there are incredible communities of people who are leaving them. These people are connected. They amplify voices they admire or trust. They comment and chat and meet-up in real life. They are the unpaid grafters of the internet, who might occasionally get some free dim sum at a restaurant opening. And almost all sites that seem to be publishing enterprises have this going on, beneath the hood. The content rumbling of an engine of social interactions.
The Pub: At a certain point in hearing Mark Zuckerberg enthuse about how people could visit crazy cool spaces in the metaverse, including the experience of being a disembodied torso going to an old English pub to sip virtual pints, I began to long for reality. I can see the use case for deep sea diving or space exploration via the metaverse. These are things that I will never do, and therefore I might get something out of a digital facsimile. But deep sea diving and space exploration are HARD to replicate in virtual reality, requiring expensive and laborious development. Making a fake pub is much easier. But the point of technology is to enhance – or to use their own word, augment – reality. And a VR pub is just much, much worse than a real pub – not least because the function of the pub is to have a drink, something that you can’t do in the metaverse. And so I come back to the idea that social media doesn’t work if it cannot improve upon the socialising we do in real life. Going down to a British pub involves, on average, meeting friends, getting shouted at by strangers, having tetchy encounters with authority figures. Those are all social media things. But it also involves the look (and smell) of an authentic pub, beer on tap, horrible grotty toilets, pub food of such varying quality it should play for West Ham, romantic opportunities etc. All things that social media cannot provide. Rather than augmenting reality, a metaverse pub shrinks it. And that’s something I can’t see catching on.