The Metaverse: Explanation from a Behavioural Scientist



Chances are that you’ve heard of the Metaverse. It’s vaguely linked to Facebook and whatever Zuckerberg is up to these days. It also shows up on the apps acquired by Facebook (Instagram, for example). They are now all part of “Meta”. Now I’m a stickler for getting meta with things, so I thought I’d do a bit of a deep dive on the Metaverse myself; what is it, but maybe more importantly, what do they expect us to do with it? Is there any behavioural science backing the integration of this new “-verse” into our lives?



 

What it is: “The metaverse is a concept of a persistent, online, 3D universe that combines multiple different virtual spaces. The metaverse will allow users to work, meet, game, and socialize together in these 3D spaces.” It’s hailed as the future of the internet. The metaverse will be driven by augmented reality, with each user controlling a character or avatar. For example, you might take a mixed reality meeting with an Oculus VR headset in your virtual office, finish work and relax in a blockchain-based game, and then manage your crypto portfolio and finances all inside the metaverse. Essentially, your entire life can be lived in the metaverse. Which somehow reminds me of the Bruce Willis film “Surrogates” in which the regular human goes into a pod, that then controls what is essentially a robot version of themselves (but way more attractive). Everyone does this, so everyone is somehow ok with it. That is sort of the vibe the metaverse is giving me.

 

Is it mainstream? No, not at all. The metaverse doesn’t exist fully yet, but some platforms contain metaverse-like elements. Video games are a good example of this: game developers have pushed the boundaries of what a game is through hosting in-game events and creating virtual economies (which can link nicely to crypto). You can already see some aspects of the metaverse in existing virtual video game worlds. Games like Second Life and Fortnite have aspects of the metaverse and so do work socialization tools like Gather.town, where you can host an entire conference in the environment and people interact through avatars. Which somehow vaguely reminds me of IMVU, which is an online “social” platform (it’s in quotation marks because a lot of it was sexual rather than social), where people created avatars and houses and went out to online places to “talk” to people (you get my drift with the quotation marks). While these applications are not the metaverse, they are somewhat similar to what the metaverse is supposed to be. The metaverse itself doesn’t exist yet. So to answer the question is it mainstream: it doesn’t exist, so I suppose it can’t be. Features of the metaverse are becoming increasingly mainstream, but predominantly with younger people, especially those who are active online, e.g. gamers.

 

Should we be excited? I’ll leave that up to you as a person…

 

Should we be worried? As much as I don’t really want to go around with my tinfoil hat, I do have some concerns here. If you know my background, you’ll know that it’s in personal finance. I also know quite a lot about data – it’s how most researchers, but also most for-profit institutions figure out what people are actually up to, financially or otherwise. Besides supporting gaming or social media, the metaverse will also combine economies, digital identity, decentralized governance, and other applications. My concern is with the digital economies. I’m not a massive fan of using non-physical money to buy non-physical things. The behavioural science behind that isn’t great… In terms of data, having all of “you” in one online place, is not a great idea either. Facebook (or I suppose now called Meta) already knows a lot about you. One of the very few sources of data they didn’t have so far were you transactions. And now they want to merge that also into a single metaverse. Suspicious much? Another aspect I don’t like is how it’s attempting to integrate with work. One of the examples was that people can now go “to their office” in the metaverse; you will be able to enter a 3D office and interact with your colleagues’ avatars. Because not only does Facebook, sorry Meta, want your social details and that of all of your network, now they want finance and work too. It’s too much. They want to know too much about you. They want to be involved in too many aspects of your life. Stay out. This is not just my opinion: digital privacy experts also continue to point out that the metaverse would be the ultimate surveillance tool. “Not only would the metaverse collect data on your eye-tracking movement, hand movements, the shape of your room and more. We also have to figure out a legal [framework] of what happens if you get harassed in a virtual platform, given that it has real implications since you’re so immersed in the technology.”


 

Why should we partake in any of this? Some games that have metaverse-like aspects (are built on the blockchain) can actually be profitable. Yup, you can make money from them. One example of this is Axie Infinity, a play-to-earn game that’s provided players in developing countries an opportunity to earn consistent income. By purchasing or being gifted three creatures known as “Axies”, a player can start farming the Smooth Love Potion (SLP) token (I’m not making this up, I promise…). When sold on the open market, someone could make roughly $200 to $1000 (USD) depending on how much they play and the market price. Again, Axie has aspects of the metaverse, it’s not part of the metaverse. Because the metaverse doesn’t exist yet.

 

How do you use it? Assuming that the metaverse will eventually exist, how to use it is a fair question. So going back to what the metaverse is supposed to be: “a continuum of immersive digital experiences that will be available to users in the future and which will allow them to engage in a range of different activities in completely digital spaces. That could mean participating in a massive virtual reality multiplayer game accessed through a VR headset or experiencing integrated digital and physical spaces such as location-specific immersive digital content from business users who are visiting via digital glasses or smartphones.” So you need compatible gear for it. And this brings me to the next question:

 

Why doesn’t it exist yet? The simplest answer: we’re not there yet technologically. “Meta Platforms believes that immersive virtual reality experiences are the future way people will interact on social media. However, much of Meta’s vision is speculative and would rely on technologies and server capacity that doesn’t currently exist. It also assumes the wide-spread adoption of hardware such as VR headsets and digital glasses.” And this to me also speaks to why even if the metaverse eventually exists that it might not go particularly mainstream, who’s keen on wearing a bloody VR headset the entire day? We can barely get people to wear facemasks for their own protection…

 

Will it harm “the children”? Obviously, the metaverse isn’t exactly directed at senior citizens. It’s targeting much younger markets, especially those into crypto, blockchain and gaming. However, it might be exactly these people that it might not reach. Vice, the popular media site, reached out to interview several teens about the Facebook Metaverse and the reactions were lukewarm at best, with the mean temperature hanging at stone-cold disinterest. Several teens mentioned their general dislike and distrust of Zuckerberg, as well as the platform (Meta) trying superhard to be cool and “down with the kids”. For those who don’t know meme-culture, that’s essentially the opposite of being cool. A lot of the teenagers also admitted to barely using Facebook anymore, except for interacting with “older people”. Ouch. Another aspect that all people, not just kids, have to watch out for is that of a safe space. Earlier this year, Facebook came under fire after a woman reported she had been sexually harassed and “virtually gang-raped” in the metaverse. So clearly Meta is about as proactive about this as Facebook was about ensuring there’s no bias during election season…


 

I’ve done my research on the topic, now I hope you do yours and become an informed consumer about the topic. In terms of data security, privacy, and it being a safe space I have grave concerns. But if that doesn't matter to you, be my guest. All I can say is, I think I’m going to skip this fad. Toodles.

Behavioural Science