What’s the metaverse? Whatever companies want it to be

Note: This was originally published as the daily newsletter for the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

Facebook’s name change in November, when the company announced that it was rebranding itself as Meta, sparked a lot of credulous media coverage of “the metaverse,” a somewhat nebulous concept that incorporates virtual reality, 3D gaming, and a number of other trends. Microsoft’s announcement on Tuesday that it plans to acquire Activision Blizzard, a leading game developer, for almost $70 billion is likely to accelerate interest in the concept even further, since it was specifically mentioned as one of the justifications for the deal (which still needs to be approved by the Federal Trade Commission). Microsoft said that the acquisition will “provide building blocks for the metaverse,” a claim that was repeated in more than one news story about the deal (although in some cases the statement was not taken at face value).

Activision Blizzard is one of the largest gaming companies in the world, with titles such as Call of Duty, Overwatch, and World of Warcraft, as well as smaller one-person games like Candy Crush. What does any of that have to do with the metaverse? Not a lot, admits the New York Times. Microsoft didn’t go into any detail on how the deal advances the metaverse, although Satya Nadella, the CEO, did say “when we think about our vision for what a metaverse can be, we believe there won’t be a single, centralized metaverse.” Peter Kafka, a media writer for Vox, described this as a statement aimed directly at Lina Khan, head of the Federal Trade Commission—an attempt to encourage her to approve the purchase, because it might mean competition for Facebook/Meta.

The connection between games like World of Warcraft and the metaverse isn’t totally a creation of Microsoft’s marketing department. Experts—including Matthew Ball, who has written a number of essays on the concept, and helps run an investment fund that finances metaverse-related technology— point out that multiplayer “worlds” such as Roblox and Fortnite are the closest thing to the multiverse right now. Although they began as just a pastime, they have consumed the attention of users to the point where non-game events take place in them, including concerts by musicians like L’il Nas X that draw millions. Last year, technology writer Clive Thompson argued that “the metaverse is already here, and it is Minecraft” (which Microsoft bought in 2014).

A survey of patents filed by Meta related to virtual reality and games gives some indication of how these technologies could be used to generate revenue, the Financial Times reports. Some of the patents relate to eye and face tracking technology, ostensibly to enhance the virtual experience by making an avatar or game player look more realistic. But some believe the same types of technology could target gamers with ads and affiliate links based on what they look at or focus on in the game. One vision of what the metaverse represents is what Alexander Bernevega and Alex Gekker, two researchers in Amsterdam, call the “assetization” of video games, in which gamers play for free, but pay for everything from avatars to weapons or virtual real estate.

Will Oremus, a technology columnist with the Washington Post, noted in December that much of the coverage of the metaverse has been long on hype and short on reality, with stories in the New York Times about how people are getting married in the metaverse, and in the Wall Street Journal about how companies are buying virtual property. The reality is that the marriage took place in a virtual environment created by a company that both the bride and groom work for, while the real estate purchases took place in proprietary worlds like Sandbox and Decentraland, virtual ghost towns with only a few thousand members. They may be interesting, but are they an example of “the metaverse?” Some coverage feels like mostly a list of product names.

What the metaverse looks like at the moment, Oremus said, is “an idea, an explosion of hype, and a bevy of rival apps and platforms looking to capitalize on both—without a clear path between the idea and reality.” The past year, he added, was a year of “rebranding existing technologies as building blocks for the metaverse, while leaving intact the corporate walls that make a true metaverse impossible.” Is the Microsoft/Activision deal, assuming it goes ahead, likely to change that much? Not really. Let’s hope when the next metaverse-related development occurs, there’s less credulity and more digging into what the term means and how it is (or isn’t) becoming a reality.

Here’s more on the metaverse:

The next iteration: Ball told CJR in an interview on our Galley discussion platform that the metaverse can best be understood as the next iteration of the internet—the next step beyond mobile. It is, he said, the fourth wave of computing and networking; the first, the mainframe era, was in the 1950s; the second was the personal computer era, followed by the early internet and the mobile and cloud era. “Each era changes who accesses computing and networking resources, when, where, and why,” said Ball. “It leads to new technologies, standards, protocols, devices, behaviors, companies and so on.”

A fantasy: Ian Bogost, director of the Film & Media Studies program at Washington University in St. Louis, wrote in The Atlantic that the metaverse is “a fantasy of power and control” on the part of technology billionaires: “If only the public could be persuaded to abandon atoms for bits, the material for the symbolic, then people would have to lease virtualized renditions of all the things that haven’t yet been pulled online.”

Fired by VR: Max Read, a former editor at Gawker and New York magazine who now publishes a newsletter on technology and culture, says the term “metaverse” is “mostly a buzzword used to refer vaguely to a bunch of businesses, platforms, and technologies that might someday work together in some not particularly well-defined way.” The Facebook version of this, he says, involves entering a world where you can “go to VR meetings for your VR job [and] get summoned into a VR conference room to get VR furloughed by your VR boss.”

Other notable stories:

André Leon Talley, a former editor-at-large for Vogue magazine and one of the few Black editors in the fashion industry, died on Tuesday after struggling with a number of health problems, the New York Times reported. He was 73. The Times described Talley as a “larger-than-life fashion editor who shattered his industry’s glass ceiling when he went from the Jim Crow South to the front rows of Paris couture, parlaying his encyclopedic knowledge of fashion history and his quick wit into roles as author, public speaker, television personality and curator.” Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour called his loss “immeasurable.”

The Royal Society, the leading scientific research agency in the UK, said in a new report that calls for social media sites to remove misleading content should be rejected, because the negative effects of doing so outweigh the benefits, the Financial Times reported. “After investigating the sources and impact of online misinformation, the Royal Society concluded that removing false claims and offending accounts would do little to limit their harmful effects,” the FT wrote. “Instead, bans could drive misinformation to harder-to-address corners of the internet and exacerbate feelings of distrust in authorities.”

On Tuesday, Democrat members of Congress introduced a new bill that would ban almost all uses of digital ad targeting by platforms such as Facebook and Google, the Verge reported. The Banning Surveillance Advertising Act “prohibits digital advertisers from targeting any ads to users,” the site reported. “It makes some small exceptions, like allowing for ‘broad’ location-based targeting. Contextual advertising, like ads that are specifically matched to online content, would be allowed.” The bill allows individual users to sue platforms like Facebook and Google if they break the law, granting up to $5,000 per violation.

The Nieman Journalism Lab writes about some of the news outlets that have experimented with using Twitter’s Spaces product — which allows for the creation of invitation-only audio “rooms” — for journalistic purposes. “Recent newsroom-hosted Spaces include NPR’s Steve Inskeep talking about his abbreviated interview with Trump, the Miami Herald going behind the scenes of their months-long investigation into the Surfside condo collapse, and reporters at The Washington Post jumping on to respond to the news Microsoft was acquiring the gamemaker Activision.”

Paroma Soni writes for CJR about a new local nonprofit newsroom that is launching in Houston, with initial funding of $20 million from several philanthropic entities, including the Houston Endowment and the Kinder Foundation, Arnold Ventures, the American Journalism Project, and the Knight Foundation. “The endeavor follows a two-year research effort led by the American Journalism Project, a venture philanthropy dedicated to local journalism,” Soni reports. “The newsroom, which is as yet unnamed, will begin operating in late 2022 or early 2023, the group said.”

A majority of people around the world are concerned that they are being lied to by journalists, according to the latest trust survey from PR firm Edelman, as reported by Press Gazette. “Two-thirds of people globally said that they believe that journalists and reporters purposely try to mislead people by saying things they know are false or grossly exaggerated  –  an increase of eight percentage points on the company’s last report,” the Press Gazette reported. The trust survey also found that “faith in the media fell in fifteen countries, with the US among those reporting the biggest drops.”

Axios launched its first paid newsletters on Wednesday, three publications focused on investment and acquisitions in financial technology, health technology, and retail tech, AdWeek magazine reported. “Called Axios Pro, the newsletters cost $599 per year individually or $1,799 for All Access, which includes the three existing newsletters—as well as two more that the publisher aims to release this spring, covering media and climate tech. The newsletters will publish daily during the week, and a subscription also provides the reader access to exclusive Axios Pro events and other pending perks.”

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