READ MORE: How we describe the metaverse makes a difference – today’s words could shape tomorrow’s reality and who benefits from it (The Conversation)
There are now myriad articles on the metaverse, but still the concept remains a vague. That matters because the way we conceive of the next-gen internet will form the foundations for its actual structure and right now the narrative is being controlled by a few.
At face value, Tom Boellstorff is an unlikely commentator on the subject. He’s a professor of Anthropology at the University of California and therefore understands the dynamics of social interaction and how that changes from culture to culture.
If, in future, we’re all going to be socializing a lot more online in virtual worlds, then Boellstorff thinks confusion now about what the metaverse is won’t help us in the long run.
“The metaverse is at a virtual crossroads,” he argues in an article for The Conversation. “Norms and standards set in the next few years are likely to structure the metaverse for decades. But without common conceptual ground, people cannot even debate these norms and standards.”
He goes on, “If we can’t distinguish innovation from hype, then powerful companies like Meta are free to set the terms for their own commercial interests.”
The metaverse may be a wild frontier, but here at NAB Amplify we’ve got you covered! Hand-selected from our archives, here are some of the essential insights you’ll need to expand your knowledge base and confidently explore the new horizons ahead:
- What Is the Metaverse and Why Should You Care?
- Avatar to Web3: An A-Z Compendium of the Metaverse
- The Metaverse is Coming To Get You. Is That a Bad Thing?
- Don’t Expect the Metaverse to Happen Overnight
- A Framework for the Metaverse from Hardware to Hollywood and Everything in Between
Most attempts to describe the metaverse use a similar set of phrases including virtual worlds, avatars, virtual reality, cryptocurrency, blockchain, and non-fungible tokens. The problem as the professor sees it is that humans don’t categorize by such lists.
Decades of research in cognitive science have shown that most categories are radial and will differ in people’s conception depending on their cultural experience. Using Boellstorff’s example, a “bird” for North Americans looks something like a sparrow. Hummingbirds and ducks are further from this prototype. Further still are flamingos and penguins. Yet all are birds, radiating out from the socially specific prototype.
Taking this idea to the metaverse, he picks on the idea of interoperability — the idea that identities, friendship networks, and digital items like avatar clothes should be capable of moving between virtual worlds.
Clegg warned that “without a significant degree of interoperability baked into each floor, the metaverse will become fragmented.”
“The metaverse is at a virtual crossroads. Norms and standards set in the next few years are likely to structure the metaverse for decades. But without common conceptual ground, people cannot even debate these norms and standards.”— Tom Boellstorff
Other companies like Epic Games and NVIDIA have espoused similar arguments, but Boellstorff says that this ignores how interoperability isn’t “prototypical” for the metaverse. In many cases, he suggests, fragmentation is desirable.
“I might not want the same identity in two different virtual worlds, or on Facebook and an online game. This raises the question of why Meta — and many pundits — are fixated on interoperability. Left unsaid in Clegg’s essay is the “foundation” of Meta’s profit model: tracking users across the metaverse to target advertising and potentially sell digital goods with maximum effectiveness.”
Clegg’s claim about interoperability isn’t a statement of fact, according to the professor. “It’s an attempt to render Meta’s surveillance capitalism prototypical, the foundation of the metaverse. It doesn’t have to be.”
For Boellstorff, this example illustrates how defining the metaverse isn’t an empty intellectual exercise. It’s the conceptual work that will fundamentally shape design, policy, profit, community, and the digital future.
He says we need to beware attempts by companies like Meta to lock in definitions of the metaverse, otherwise this will become our digital reality before it’s too late.