A name change is seldom a small thing. It’s especially significant when one of the world’s most valuable companies decides to rebrand. Facebook’s move to “Meta” offers an important signal about the firm’s future focus, which promises to impact billions of people who regularly sign onto its social media platforms. The idea of a ‘metaverse’ sounds exciting, but will it really be a better place?
The recent decision of the planet’s most widely used social media platform to rename itself Meta surprised many; yet, it’s a move we’ve witnessed before, one of the most notable happening in 2015 when Google grew into Alphabet.
Like Google, Facebook would never do something as rash as discard one of the world’s most valuable brands. Rather, the company recognized that by retaining the Facebook name for just the specific social media platform and renaming the umbrella corporation Meta, the company’s expansion would be much more free from perceptual constraints.
Moreover, Meta might stimulate a whole new world of virtual possibilities. According to the New York Times, the move encapsulates CEO Mark Zuckerberg’ plan to “refocus his Silicon Valley company on what he sees as the next digital frontier, which is the unification of disparate digital worlds into something called the metaverse.”
Wasn’t ‘unifying disparate digital worlds’ what Facebook did when it allowed users to link the platform to their Instagram accounts? In a manner of speaking it was, but the metaverse purports to be much, much more.
So, what exactly is the metaverse?
Despite its sudden popularity, the concept is not one that’s easy to define, mainly because “it doesn’t necessarily exist”; rather, it’s “a dream for the future.” It’s also hard to get a handle on the metaverse because, like the Internet, it’s not a singular product that Facebook or any one company can build alone.
Crypto game developer Andrei Shulgach, who spends several hours each day in the meta-space doing research for metaverse-related projects, affirms the concept’s evolving and evasive meaning:
“For the past four years, the term metaverse has mainly been a buzzword without a defined meaning, and even now it is often used ambiguously. For instance, there’s a distinction between the gaming metaverse and the metaverse as a whole.”
To the end of reducing the ambiguity, here’s how some have described the metaverse:
- “a variety of virtual experiences, environments, and assets”
- “a framework for an extremely connected life”
- “a 3D virtual world inhabited by avatars of real people”
- “a set of virtual spaces where you can create and explore with other people who aren’t in the same physical space as you”
- “a multiverse which interoperates more with the real world, incorporating things like augmented reality overlays, VR dressing rooms for real stores, and even apps like Google Maps.”
- “a future digital world that feels more tangibly connected to our real lives and bodies.”
If it’s challenging just to understand what the metaverse is, it’s even more difficult to estimate its moral impact. As Facebook and a slew of other organizations aim to engage us in their own region of the new ream, it’s important to ask:
To what extent will the metaverse be a force for good?
For those who don’t now frequent the metaverse, cynicism may be the understandable reaction, especially when some of the companies spearheading the change regularly make headlines for moral lapses like profiting from divisive content, playing fast and loose with data privacy, and allowing people to pummel others’ self-concepts.
There are undoubtedly more, but here are four main moral concerns related to the metaverse:
1. Time sink: Whether it’s watching hours of TikTok videos or compulsively checking one’s Facebook feed, social media has already become a time waster for many, so one can only imagine how an even more immersive virtual experience might consume each waking hour.
2. Distraction: In keeping with the first point, virtual worlds and avatars might also draw people’s attention away from what’s happening in the physical world around them, including relationships with flesh-and-blood people and resources that should be spent on real physical needs like food, clothing, and housing.
3. Safety: Internet safety is already a perennial concern, especially for children. Will even more complex and blended interaction, e.g., augmented reality, present new ways for predators to deceive and disadvantage vulnerable populations?
4. Accessibility: As technology serves increasingly important functions in many of our lives, it’s easy to forget that not everyone has the same access, which can be because of limitations that are financial (affording hardware and related services), physical (seeing or hearing), cognitive (distinguishing the virtual form the physical).
These and other moral issues may be further complicated by what Shulgach has observed: “many companies jumping into the space, trying to ride the wave and catch an audience when they really have no experience or know what it takes to launch a successful metaverse project.”
Yes, its cynical, but it’s also realistic to expect that at least some of these firms that are willing to overleverage their experience and expertise will also be inclined to undervalue ethical concerns. We see some of that ambivalence now with the Internet–Why would the metaverse be any different?
However, that rhetorical question can also have a favorable frame: Despite its flaws, the Internet has been a tremendously positive force for communication, work productivity, relationship-building, entertainment, and more–Why should the metaverse be any different?
As the metaverse continues to evolve, we’ll likely witness increasingly positive outcomes such as:
- Organizations using the metaverse to train employees and serve customers, all while saving time and conserving other resources
- Individuals finding even more interesting and engaging opportunities for information, education, and entertainment
- People forming meaningful relationships with others who they otherwise would have never known.
Shulgach, who actively works within the game industry metaverse with others, has a vision for a metaverse that makes such a positive impact:
“The idea of connecting users through virtual worlds, and digital economies powered by crypto and NFTs with real-world effects, is crucial for what the metaverse will be defined as in the future. This is an incredible opportunity to re-define and innovate the way we interact with each other moving forward.”
Like many things in life, the metaverse is a kind of tool. Whether a tool is something as simple as a hammer or as complex as a car, most can be used for either good or bad—the outcomes depend on the motivation of the user.
The metaverse is a collection of tools that together form a mechanism unlike any other. It’s wishful thinking to believe that every user of the tool will actively consider its moral impact, but hopefully many will, if not most. There’s no reason that metaverse marketing can’t be “Mindful Marketing.”