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02 February, 2022

WTF is the Metaverse?!

Disclaimer! Yes, I work at Roblox. It's been a decade or so since I could pretend this space to be anonymous, and many years ago I made it clear that c0de517e/deadc0de = Angelo Pesce. And yes, my work makes me think about what this "metaverse" thing is more than the average person on the street (Roblox has been a metaverse company long, long before it was "cool"). I guess like an engineer at google might think about "the internet" more than the average person... But the following truly is not about what we are building at Roblox, which is something quite specific - these are my opinions, and other people might agree to some degree, and disagree with them.

I don't like hype cycles.

It is somewhat frustrating to see how supposedly experienced and rational people jump on the latest shiny bandwagon. At the same time, I guess it's comfortingly human. But that's a topic for another time...

Thing is, the metaverse is undoubtedly "hot" right now, so hot that every company, regardless of what they do, wants to have a claim to it. Mostly harmless, even cute, and for some, validating years of effort pushing these ideas... But, at the same time, it dilutes the concept, it makes words mean little to nothing when you can slap them onto any product.

So, let's give it a try and think really what is the metaverse, and how, if at all, is different from what we have today.

In the most general sense, "the metaverse" evokes ideas of synthetic, alternative places for social interactions, entertainment, perhaps even work... living our lives.

And let's set aside the possible dystopian scenarios - not the point of this, albeit, these are always important to seriously consider, while also reminding ourselves that they are levied against most society-affecting technology, from the printing press onwards.

This definition is just plain... boring!

It's boring because we have always been doing that, at least, since we had the ability to connect computers together. We are social animals, obviously, we want to imagine any new technology in a social space. BBS are alternative places for social interaction. And entertainment. And work. And from there on we had all kinds of shared virtual worlds, from IRC to the Mii Channel, from MUDs to World of Warcraft, from Club Penguin to Second Life, and so on. 

LucasFilm's Habitat. Now live!

The entire internet fits the bill, through that lens, and we don't need a new word for old ideas - outside marketing perhaps.

So, let's try to find some true meaning for this word. What's new now? Is it VR/AR/XR perhaps? Web 3.0 and NFTs? The "fediverse"?

Or perhaps there is nothing new really, but we just run out of ideas, explored the space of conventional social media startups already, and now trying to see if some old concept can be successful, throw a few things at the wall and see what sticks...

My thesis? Agency.

Agency is the real differentiating factor. 

Really, it's right there, staring at us. Like a high school kid facing an essay, sometimes it's good to look at the word itself, what does the dictionary tell us? Yes, we're going there: "In its most basic use, meta- describes a subject in a way that transcends its original limits, considering the subject itself as an object of reflection".

If you're controlling your virtual, alternative, synthetic universe, you are creating something that might be spectacular, engaging, entertaining, powerful... but it's not a metaverse. 

Videogames are not the metaverse, not even MMORPGs... Sandboxes/UGC/modding is not the metaverse. Virtual worlds are not the metaverse! 

Yes, I'm "disqualifying" Minecraft, Second Life, Gather.Town, GTA 5, Decentraland, Skyrim, Fortnite, Eve Online, the lot - not because of the quality of these products, but because we don't need new words for existing concepts, we really don't... 

Obviously, the line is somewhat blurry, but if you're making most of the rules you are "just" creating a world, with varying degrees of freedom.

A metaverse is an alternative living space (universe... world...) that is mostly owned by the participants, not centrally directed. Users create, share creations and make all of the rules (the meta- part).

Why does this distinction matter? Why is it interesting? 

At a shallow level, obviously, it gives you more variety, than a single virtual world. It has all the interesting implications of any platform where you do not control content. You are not really asking people to enter your world or use your product, you are really there to provide a service for others to create what they want to create and market it, form communities, and engage with them...

But I think it's more than that. This extra agency works to create a qualitatively different community, one that is centered around the creation and sharing of creations, an economy you might call it. Something quite different from passive consumption or social co-experience.

Ironically, through this lens, most of Web 3.0 "gets is wrong", focusing on decentralizing a transaction ledger of virtual ownership, but making that ownership be simply parts of strictly controlled virtual universes. You own a certificate to a plot of digital land that someone else created and controls.

Regardless of the fact that you only own the certificate, and not the actual land, which can disappear at any moment... these kinds of worlds seem at best a coat of paint over very old and limited concepts.

To me, even outside the blockchain, the entire notion of centralized versus decentralized systems, proprietary, closed versus interoperable open standards, all these concepts are really a "how", not a "what", they might be appropriate choices for a given product at a given time, but they should never be what the product "is".

Without wanting to sell the metaverse as the future, I personally think that these "fake" or "weak" metaverses, together with the current hype, are what pushes people away from something that could be truly interesting.

Note also that nothing of this idea of social creativity, giving a platform for people to create and share in others' creations, has to do with new technologies. 

You don't need VR for any of this. You don't need hand tracking, machine learning and 3d scanning, you don't even need 3d rendering at all! 

These are all tools that might or might not be appropriate, but you could have perfectly great metaverses that are text only if you wanted to (remember MUDs? add the "meta" part...). And at the same time, just because you have some cool 3d technology, it does not mean you have something for the metaverse...

E.g. you could have a server hosting community-created ROMs for a Commodore 64, add built-in networking to allow the ROMS to be about co-experience, add a pinch of persistence to allow people to express themselves, and you'd have a perfectly great, exciting metaverse... Or you could take something like UXN and the vision of permacomputing as the foundation, to reference something more contemporary...

BBS Door Games - more proto-metaverse-y than most of today's virtual worlds.

In summary, these are to me the key attributes of this metaverse idea:

  1. Inherently Social and interactive - as we are social animals and we want to inhabit spaces that allow socialization. This mostly means real-time networking, allowing users to connect, create and experience together.
  2. User-Created: participants have full agency over the worlds. Otherwise, you're just making a conventional virtual world. This is the "meta" part, you should not have control over the worlds, users should be able to take pieces of the universe and shape it, or completely subvert everything, own their creations. 
    • Litmus test: if your users are "playing X", then X is not a metaverse. If they are playing X in Y, then Y might be a metaverse :)
  3. Must have Shareable Persistence. Users should be able, in-universe, to store and share what they create - creating an economy, connecting worlds and people. And at the very least, the world must allow for a persistent, shared representation of self (Avatars). Otherwise, you're only making a piece of middleware, a game engine.

It's a social spin over the old, OG hacker's ethos of tinkering, creating with computers, owning their creations and sharing them. It has nothing to do with the particular implementation and it is not even about laws, copyright, or politics. It's a community that creates together, makes its own rules, and has full agency over these virtual creations. 

One more thing? In a truly creator-centric economy, you don't need to base all your revenue on ads, and the dark patterns they create.

Perhaps to shape that future it's more useful to revisit old, lost ideas, than thinking about shiny new overhyped toys. More SmallTalk's idea of Personal Computing and Plan 9, less NFTs and XR...


Rodolfo Borges said...

Let me se if I got it.. is Scratch a metaverse then?

DEADC0DE said...

Rodolfo: not to my knowledge. Scratch afaik is a programming tool with an associated community / sharing of projects. But it is not itself a social place - i.e. the things you create are not virtual worlds, universes - so it is not a meta-verse.

Most creativity tools have communities and sharing websites, and the communities are social, e.g. collaborating over forums, chats etc - that's all amazing and fantastic, but it is nothing new and not the meta-verse imho.

Anonymous said...

This is also an interesting take IMHO - from Pachter Factor