Are you on XR Twitter? You should be. It’s a cool place. But right now there’s a lot of heat on a particular term: “Metaverse.”
Some people are going to the bat to keep the word around and in common use. Other people are saying that the word has lost its magic or that it was never very good to begin with. So, what exactly is “the M-word,” and why is the terminology so contested all of a sudden?
What Is the Metaverse?
“Metaverse” never really had a solid definition to begin with. As we’ll see, this is one of the main reasons that some people aren’t having it anymore.
The term was first used in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 science fiction novel “Snow Crash.” There, it refers to a single virtual experience with many of the elements that we are familiar with in our real-life conversations including a persistent, shared virtual space experienced in total immersion by the user.
It’s unclear when the term started gaining traction in real-life discussions, but it became virtually unavoidable (at least in XR circles) during the pandemic. During our shared period of physical isolation, more and more people turned to shared virtual spaces, but VR hardware has also been improving to the point of increasing consumer adoption.
So, why is everyone arguing about it now? Probably because Mark Zuckerberg talked about it in a recent interview with The Verge.
What’s Wrong With Using The M-Word?
Some commentators are levying valid disputes with use of the M-word, but a lot of the complaints definitely seem to just be grumbling that what was once a cool, niche term is increasingly finding its way into the common parlance.
So, what are some of those more valid concerns?
The Term Was Never Intended for Practical Use
For one, as mentioned above, “metaverse” doesn’t really have an agreed-upon definition.
People can (typically) agree on the touchpoints mentioned above, but all of those touchpoints are taken from a novel that was written before the internet as we know it. Using an outdated sci-fi term to discuss what might actually be the future of computing does have some potential drawbacks.
Building the future with terms borrowed from a book that predates the modern internet might be putting the cart before the horse. This could trick us into making the future look like past predictions of the future instead of exploring what the future could really be.
I mean, if y’all wanna be holding onto a three decade old definition of “Metaverse” that couldn’t take the Internet, WWW, IoT or #AR into account or think about it all interconnected when it was written, be my guest.
— Will Burns (@AeonixAeon) July 27, 2021
More than that, we don’t really know how the word is supposed to function. For example, can it be plural? Some contend that one persistent shared virtual space like VRChat and another persistent shared virtual space like AltspaceVR are their own “metaverses.” Others argue that there is only one metaverse like there is only one internet and each space is like a webpage.
It’s a Buzzword
Trying to toss out a useful term because it’s popular now is immature and shortsighted. However, the popularity of the term has diluted it some as companies and their representatives use the term to describe applications and platforms that just don’t fit the bill.
— Timmy Ghiurau (@itzik009) July 29, 2021
We don’t know exactly what “metaverse” means, and we never will if people use it because it sounds good instead of because it actually describes what they’re doing. Of course, companies and reps use this confusion to their advantage. Knowing that the term is nebulous, some use it to promise the world without promising anything.
On the other hand, the term having some ambiguity gives it flexibility. For example, if we stick to the closest thing that we have to a pure definition, only large-scale social VR applications can qualify. This rules out the hardware companies that are building the infrastructure that the metaverse runs on.
In a world of multiple Metaverses, the biggest winners will likely be Nvidia, Qualcomm, etc.
By analogy, ExxonMobil has been valued much higher than any single carmaker for most of the 21st century.
— Andrew Woodberry🕸🅐🅡 (@XRandrew) August 3, 2021
It’s Too Shiny
The fact alone that the metaverse promises everything is why some people don’t like it. It’s a recurring concern among XR developers that people tend to overestimate what will be available in the future and underestimate what is available right now. Using futuristic terms might encourage this kind of thinking.
Don’t get me wrong, I am intrigued about the future metaverse too. But its difficult to be excited about an area where no-one can agree on what it’ll look like or what shape it’ll take.
It’s like being excited for a TV show commissioned to be released in ten years.
— Tom Ffiske (@TomFfiske) July 27, 2021
“Metaverse” isn’t really a term used by most everyday XR users and some believe that it never will be. (Of course, that’s also largely true of another commonly used term in the industry: “XR.”)
In the words of Alan Smithson at this year’s VR/AR Association Global Summit, “We already have a metaverse. It’s called ‘the internet.’ What we’re doing now is creating more visual ways of interacting with it.”
This line of thinking follows the prediction that there will never be a single unified “Snow Crash”-style metaverse and that the term should be and will be used in the same ways in which people use the word “internet.” Now, think about the last time you heard someone use the word “internet.”
Nobody says “I was on the internet,” they say “I was on YouTube” or “I was on Twitter.” So too, according to this line of thinking, people won’t say “meet me in the metaverse,” they’ll say “meet me in Altspace,” or “meet me in Horizons.”
“Metaverse” is to the internet now, as “Information Superhighway” was to the internet in early 90’s.
A placeholder term for the next iteration of the internet that will be forgotten once the internet becomes it.
— Haldun (@haltor) July 25, 2021
Of course, Horizons is something of a walled garden and some people include interoperability in their definitions of the metaverse. So Facebook, the people who exacerbated all of this drama in the first place, might not even be a part of the discussion.
What Happens if You Use the M-Word?
We’re going to continue using the M-word and, at least for now, everyone else probably will too. It has its downsides, sure. Visitors to this persistent shared space may never actually use it, sure. But it’s useful right now and that’s where we all live.
In fact, it’s a good thing that all of this argument is going on. There might be some bruised egos and elevated heart rates, but we also might be the closest we’ve ever been to an actual shared understanding of what the metaverse is and what it isn’t.