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Why the metaverse will never happen
It is far too early to suggest that this is the beginning of the end for Facebook. I doubt we will ever really see the end. It’s too embedded, too entangled in social life to simply fall-away. We might see a diminishing, its influence ebbing as social media fragment and as networks contort into new formations1.
Reports that the social media platform had seen its first ever drop in daily active users does hint at something. It’s only a small drop, with Meta revealing ‘that Facebook's DAUs fell to 1.929bn in the three months to the end of December, compared to 1.930bn in the previous quarter’. These are big numbers yet that small drop is already creating some ripples, notably with the sudden and record fall in Meta’s share price.
Most of the talk coming recently from Meta has concerned its vision for a so-called metaverse. Their image of the metaverse is largely based around ideals of heightened connection within a more sensory, corporeal and multifunctional world. Such a platform is pictured as a space to occupy rather than just a tool to use. We are told that it would be a more holistic and immersive version of the internet and of social media.
The problems that Facebook and Meta currently face are not the main reason why their proposed metaverse will never really happen. At the same time, that drop in daily active users might cause us to wonder if Meta's hold over the future is quite as secure as its confident pronouncements might have us believe. Beyond that small drop in Facebook's numbers and Meta’s falling share price there are other more significant reasons why I suspect that the metaverse will never happen, at least not in a form anything close to that being prophesied.
First, and this may sound overly sceptical, we might question whether the metaverse is something that is intended to ever actually be realised on the scale being suggested. It may just be acting as a vanishing point on the horizon. It is the equivalent of a show-home for a high-end complex that will never be fully occupied. By drawing it out as a long-term outcome the metaverse might become a way of justifying actions and developments as they occur now. Any measure taken can always be said to simply be a step on the way to realising the dream of the metaverse.
You may notice that the assumption is that the metaverse is something everyone desires. With this assumption in mind, any action may then be presented as being a legitimate progression toward reaching that shared goal. The future metaverse can then become a means for ushering in the extended movement of data between systems, for instance, or perhaps it will become a means of justifying visual tracking or the increased capture of audio, haptic or physiological data. The list could go on. The metaverse vision could be seen as a way of gilding a path toward a single platform that we will infrequently have the inconvenience of having to leave. Whatever the intentions might be, the metaverse is a vision with the purpose of achieving the in-between steps that will extend data harvesting. I would question whether the metaverse is an actual aim in itself.
Alongside this, the metaverse won’t happen in this imaged form because embodiment doesn’t work in the way that these visions seem to assume. We don’t need a moving-body avatar in social media for it to function effectively. Metaverse embodiment would seem pointless to people who want to either be disembodied online or who want to share their actual lifestyles with others in images and video clips. I’d suggest that people are not seeking to avatar-themselves in social media. In general terms, people are floating absent of embodiment in social media or they want to depict themselves in very specific ways. They are unlikely to want to do something that occupies an awkward space in-between these poles, which is what the metaverse’s avatars are likely to offer.
Above anything else, the proposed embodiments of the metaverse are more likely to be seen as a distraction from relationality and interaction rather than enhancing social experience (or whatever term will be used here). However slick and multifunctional it might become, the metaverse will add to the cumbersomeness rather than alleviating it. Instead of smoothing the sense of distance, it is much more likely to add to it. It’s hard to see this extra layer or dimension within social media space being anything other than superfluous to the actual interactions that populate it.
We could also add the directionlessness of the metaverse itself. Why go there? What’s the point of going? There is an aimlessness to these spaces. This is in contrast to the gaming version of the metaverse found on something like Roblox, for instance. Embodiment matters in gaming spaces because it is part of the limits and navigation that make gaming a challenge. In gaming mobility is generally more important than interaction, in social media interaction is far more important than a sense of mobility. The embodied avatar also lends gaming its required spatial dimensions, in which bodies move skilfully through spatial dimensions. This type of embodied presence is needed in gaming. If we remove the gaming aspect, then the limits and navigations are just an obstacle without a sense of purpose or a reason to try to overcome them.
There may be other purposes that will emerge though. The metaverse might allow a kind of spatialisation of non-fungible tokens or it might make tangible other blockchain underpinned ownership. That doesn’t mean that people will use such a space very much, other than to visit these tokens in a more materialised form. The metaverse could be used to transform the archive of immaterial objects into something that can be visualised and visited (like a vault perhaps). Rather than an embodied interactive space the metaverse might be the Internet of Things in reverse. Where the Internet of Things was about networking of objects in material space the metaverse might be a networking of immaterial objects in an imagined space.
The metaverse may allow products and objects to populate our imaginations as actual things but beyond this it is unlikely to serve any other relational function for more than moments of tourism. In other words, it would work not as an everyday space but as an intermittent space of exchange and display of immaterial products. The biggest object to the move to buying and owning blockchain tokens and the like is picturing their existence. If it is to exist in any form, it might be that the metaverse would provide this sense of the objects existing. I still have my doubts if this would have very much appeal, and it certainly wouldn’t lead to the type of metaverse that is currently being imagined.
I might well be wrong, and it’s never wise to predict the future, but, based on what we know of the internet, social media and platforms, I don’t think the metaverse will ever really happen. That is not to say the technology won’t be there, it is to say that it won’t be a socially significant thing. As well as its potential realisation, the ideals of the metaverse are to be questioned. The idea that this future is itself somehow inevitable should also be questioned. The promises of a coming metaverse seem much less likely to materialise if we reflect on the current media landscape and how people occupy it. It also starts to look less like an endpoint if we think not about the vision but what that vision is being used to achieve today.
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This talk of a coming metaverse, a recent preoccupation at Meta but a concept that has itself been around for a while, has perhaps distracted a little from what might be a reconfiguration of the social media landscape in the present.
In a piece in July 2020 I looked at how the statistics contained in the Ofcom Online Nation report were suggesting some changes in the social media ecology. Within that I argued that Facebook’s dominance in the social media sector might be challenged fairly soon. There were two main reasons for this. The first was generational. Younger people were shown clearly to be preferring Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok. The other reason for a potential shift in the hierarchy was to do with the fragmentation of social media and how people were coming to manage multiple accounts
The range of social media being used means that dominance is going to be something much harder to achieve and maintain, especially as social media platforms are used for different types of interactions or to interact with different networks. Plus the cultures and tones of platforms vary, as do their functionalities. The other thing to consider here, as I discussed, was how, within combinations of social media profiles there was evidence of a change in hierarchy. The statistics for which platform users considered to be the main account showed a shift. The reported survey only tells us about 2017-2019, still the trend is clear. Facebook was losing ground in terms of it being considered the main social media account. If this type of trend has continued in the time since, then the problem for Facebook may be that the downgrading of its importance across multiple profiles will be the thing that really impacts on its daily active users. The result is that engagement will drop, which, in turn, will mean less data and, therefore, less value.