The metaverse (a portmanteau of “meta-” and “universe”) is a hypothesized iteration of the internet, supporting persistent online 3-D virtual environments through conventional personal computing, as well as virtual and augmented reality headsets. Metaverses, in some limited form, are already present on platforms like VRChat or video games like Second Life.
The metaverse has come to be criticised as a method of public relations building using a purely speculative, “over-hyped” concept based on existing technology. Information privacy and user addiction are concerns within the metaverse, stemming from current challenges facing the social media and video game industries as a whole.
In the midst of the scandals of the Facebook papers, Facebook rebranded the company as Meta. The new name was designed to reflect a focus beyond the Facebook social network platform, and into the metaverse — the extension of the internet into three-dimensional virtual reality (VR) spaces.
However, given Facebook’s handling — or mishandling — of their current social responsibilities, we should be cautious about how much control a single company should have over the potential metaverse. We have an opportunity to be proactive regarding the construction of social worlds within virtual reality rather than the reactive state we find ourselves in regarding Meta’s current social products.
When Facebook was first developed, it was one of a collection of social network websites viewed to be a frivolous part of social life. Initially, the main function of the site seemed to be that you could keep up with what your college roommate was having for lunch. However, over time, the site evolved to become a place where people could maintain large swaths of social connections, engage in community groups, access social support, and share political information (and misinformation) with a wide networked audience.
Facebook capitalized on a key component of humanity: the social interactions that make up the fabric of our everyday lives. Yet as the site evolved, it became clear that those who were in a position to consider how it might fundamentally change how our society engaged with each other did not take it seriously, were treating it as a passing fad and using it for citizen surveillance. There was a failure in managing and regulating the underlying business model of social network sites.
We are poised to repeat the same mistakes with virtual reality. The current primary application of virtual reality is games, which are often not taken seriously by policy-makers except as a scapegoat for violent behavior. The industry and its consumers can at times seem like a playground for dilettantes.
In Facebook’s vision of the metaverse, it lists an all-encompassing system: there’s Horizon Home for social interactions, Quest for Business as a replacement for phone and video conferencing. Gyms become fitness applications, entertainment is provided by games and there is immersive educational content. All of this can be accessed by users through the Oculus headset.
Policy-makers and regulatory bodies stood by as Facebook emerged as a major platform of societal interaction and political speech. They did not enact anti-trust protections as Facebook acquired additional streams of social data through buying Instagram and WhatsApp. Now the platform is deeply entwined in many people’s social lives, and it will be difficult to untangle society from Facebook.
With virtual reality, we still have these opportunities. For the metaverse to truly become a part of daily life, it will need to be accessible without Facebook, or Meta, as a mediator.
Virtual reality can and should be designed for the free and easy movement across virtual spaces, rather than a single company controlling its access.