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What Happened to the Metaverse?

Take a time machine and travel back to late 2021. There’s a new buzz word that’s doing the rounds. Tech journalism has been whipped up into a frenzy, writing article after article about the metaverse; a supposed evolution of the internet that’ll create a feeling of presence as we walk, talk and do business in virtual reality arenas. But now? That frenzy is more of a whisper. Artificial intelligence is the buzz word of the times and is projected to impact all areas of industry, leisure and beyond. The metaverse, by comparison, no longer holds the transformational weight it once had. What happened?

To develop an understanding, we need to hop on our time machine again. If you were a kid at school in the mid to late 1990s, it was a bit embarrassing to admit you were into computers. You may have been labelled a ‘nerd’ or ‘geek’. The internet wasn’t as universal as it is now, and you’d leave yourself open to a grilling if you admitted to spending your
Friday night on a computer. When blogging became a thing in the mid-2000s, there was still some residual embarrassment from the 1990s lingering around. The internet was used much more by this time but people generally looked at blogging like an online diary of sorts.

But as time went on, the internet and computers went mainstream, not because of the deliberate, planned actions of a particular company, but because of technological progress, improved accessibility and greater awareness of the educational and entertainment benefits offered by the internet. Social networking would break barriers down even further. Myspace, Friendster, Hi5 and Facebook let you ‘connect’ with a large number of people in your network instead of close friends that you’d chat to on AIM or MSN Messenger.

The internet was no longer this exotic place for ‘geeks’ and ‘nerds’. The tables had turned. Rather than being this exotic activity that kept one glued to a computer screen, you’d be the odd one out if you didn’t have a smartphone with all the trending social media apps. Opinions also changed when these ‘geeks’ and ‘nerds’ were becoming some of the richest people in the world. It was hard to scoff at the internet when platforms like Twitter (now X), Facebook and YouTube boasted millions upon millions of users. With the rise of Instagram in the early 2010s, the concept of an influencer came to life. Not only could you amass a following, but you could also earn a lot of money in the process. The internet wasn’t just a place to spend your time. It became a place where you could earn a living.

As we progress through the third decade of the 21st century, the internet has transformed into a world-changing behemoth of a technology that few could have predicted in the 1990s. And that’s the point. The growth of YouTube into the world’s largest video sharing platform is a far cry from its original conception as a video dating site. The growth of Meta into a $900 billion company would’ve been unimaginable to Mark Zuckerberg when he first created thefacebook.com in his dorm room as a way for Harvard University students to connect. In many cases the dominant technologies and companies of today are those that weren’t necessarily pushed on us, but are those that pivoted and were adopted unexpectedly. Can we expect the metaverse, something that Meta and other companies have tried so hard to shove down our throats, to be adopted as the next iteration of the internet? “We are at the beginning of the next chapter for the internet, and it’s the next chapter for our company too.” This is how Mark Zuckerberg started his Founder’s Letter, 2021. Given the vast financial resources and users Meta has – the leveraging of which it’s used to great effect in growing Threads – perhaps Meta can keeping pushing the metaverse until it gets anchored and accepted. However if it is adopted en masse, it may be the exception rather than the rule.

While the metaverse isn’t a concept that’s exclusive to Meta, the association between the two is becoming tighter, especially to non-techies, and especially since Facebook changed its name to Meta. Therein lies the problem. Over the years Facebook has developed a reputation as a platform that squeezes the privacy out of its users. Scandal after scandal, the re-brand to Meta could’ve been an attempt, therefore, to not only indicate a focus on the metaverse, but also to distance itself from its poor reputation. The question is, are people willing to join a metaverse platform in which Meta collects data about you? Given that Yahoo Finance listed Meta as the worst company of the year in 2021 and some staff feel having Meta on their resumes could hurt their careers, it’s not looking great.

It’s generally agreed upon that Meta’s reputation as a whole is negative. And society is shifting to a place where we value our privacy more, perhaps because of the extent to which our privacy has been abused by Facebook in the past. The culture of oversharing that accompanied the rise of social media platforms appears to be in decline. That’s right, most people don’t care about what you ate for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Ultimately the adoption of the metaverse as the next iteration of the internet is looking like a stretch. For one, precursors have existed for quite some time. The Sims, IMVU and Pokemon GO come to mind. The hype simply isn’t there anymore. And while Meta’s vast resources can be utilised to make the metaverse an exciting prospect again, much like TikTok brute forced its way to mass adoption via advertising, history is replete with example of once seemingly unstoppable companies falling behind. Is the metaverse dead? Not yet. Meta continues to refer to it as the future of digital connection. But if Decentraland, Horizon Worlds and The Sandbox are anything to go by, it’s looking to be an uphill battle.

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