Defining the metaverse — and problems with the media that write about it

Leo Nasskau
March 30, 2023
Too often research, insight, and nuance has been sacrificed at the altar of clicks.

The metaverse is the latest in a long line of futuristic ideas to get misrepresented by the tech media. Technology coverage needs to do more than hate on the subjects it writes about, argues Leo Nasskau.

What to make of the metaverse? In 2022, 'metaverse' was what the web3 ecosystem hoped would hold the space up, even as crypto crashed. Instead, the year was spent debating its meaning, at best — or ignoring it, at worst.

If you ask Mark Zuckerberg’s Meta, ‘metaverse’ means “the next evolution in social connection.” If you ask the Financial Times’ Jemima Kelly, you’ll hear that it’s a failure which “nobody seems to want.”

Tech journalism often sees itself as a counterweight to the big visions of tech entrepreneurs, but that’s only really half the job. Media is meant to be the mediator, the middle ground. A platform where different perspectives are pitted against each other, rather than taking sides themselves. Op-eds like Kelly’s have their place, but they should at least properly research the topic they set themselves against.

“The next evolution in social connection.”

— Meta, on the metaverse

That’s particularly important when it comes to new tech that doesn’t yet have a clear place in the world. And it is even more important when it comes to ‘the metaverse’, which is a phrase that represents at least two very different ideas.

The term ‘metaverse’ has been around since the 1990s, coined by novelist Neal Stephenson to describe a global, interconnected, online universe, where people could interact and connect via infrastructure that is not owned by any single party, perhaps via blockchains. This idea is often called the ‘open metaverse’.

Neal Stephenson, whose seminal book Snow Crash defined the open metaverse for a generation of technologists in 1992, is now trying to build it with his company Lamina1.

But there is another way to think about ‘the metaverse’. Not ‘the’ metaverse, but just ‘a’ metaverse, and many of them. As Tim Sweeney, CEO of Epic Games, which makes Fortnite, puts it, the metaverse is “just an online social entertainment experience in a real-time 3D setting.” In their conversation with The Verge, his colleague Saxs Persson adds, “We’re just trying to broaden something that we already see today in Fortnite.”

Here, ‘metaverse’ refers to distinct virtual experiences each created by one single entity, like Roblox, Fortnite, or General Electric Healthcare’s training programme. Because they are built by one single company, rather than using open-source standards, these metaverses look like ‘closed’ metaverses, rather than the universal Stephenson metaverse.

Whilst Stephenson’s open metaverse has inspired technologists for decades, what we have today are distinct, closed metaverses just like that. And many of them.

“We’re just trying to broaden something that we already see today in Fortnite.”

— Saxs Persson, EVP, Epic Games

These two ideas are at different ends of the metaverse spectrum. On one side, you have organisations building closed metaverses, like Meta. On the other, you have organisations building tools to enable the Stephenson metaverse, which no single organisation owns, such as Stephenson’s own company, Lamina1.

And that’s not all. In the middle, you have people trying to build hybrid metaverses: infrastructure for a Stephenson-style metaverse, but which they themselves own, like Klatyn, whose blockchain infrastructure is managed by a closed group of 19 different companies.

Kelly has ignored the memo on this. As a result, her thinking is muddled. This comes across most clearly in her assertion that Microsoft’s industrial metaverse, Meta’s Horizons Worlds, and Animoca Brands’ investment portfolio are all in pursuit of the same idea.

This couldn’t be further from the truth. Animoca is investing their $800m portfolio in those building towards the Stephenson metaverse. Horizon Worlds is pursuing the hybrid model, with 200,000 monthly players. And neither were ever the same thing as Microsoft’s B2B offering, which is still operating, despite the headlines.

A hypothetical demo of Microsoft’s industrial metaverse tools, which could make it easier for companies to optimise their production process.

Animoca’s chief executive, Robby Yung, makes this clear in Kelly’s op-ed. Unfortunately, her essay doesn’t even try to understand. “You need to think about the metaverse the same way you think about the internet,” he says, alluding to the protocols like email and HTTP which make the internet work. What matters for the Stephenson metaverse is the infrastructure which Yung expects will let users carry assets from one part of the metaverse to the other, much like you can send an email from one address to the other today.

Stephenson’s metaverse may develop in the future, but it’s clear that closed metaverses are here to stay. Meta has already shipped 20 million VR headsets to date, according to internal company documents seen by The Verge. By comparison, Sony’s wildly successful PlayStation 5 shipped 30 million. Not bad going. Meta’s Quest Store has already passed $1.5 billion in revenue. I can confirm that Golf+, which retails for £22.99, is excellent. I can miss simple putts in a far more thrilling way than I ever did on the Wii. A free skydiving video I watched (or is ‘experienced’ a better word?) was even better. It’s obvious how entertaining this will be.

In the next few years, closed metaverses will make their mark in enterprises too. Microsoft’s industrial metaverse team may have lost 100 people, but the company still calls it a “transformative catalyst for innovation” and, last week, announced a major collaboration with Nvidia. Commercial applications of closed metaverses, whether they are B2B or B2C, are already thriving. For example, Emperia is a digital retail studio that has built virtual storefronts for luxury brands like Ralph Lauren, Burberry, and Dior, as well as retailers like Sunglass Hut and Unilever-owned Tatcha.

“We augment virtual and physical experiences, rather than replace them,” Fiona Disegni, the company’s Director of Partnerships, told Culture3 this month. Accessed via a browser, these realistic virtual locations, like Ralph Lauren’s Swiss chalet, can drive conversion rates up by 70% compared to traditional e-commerce channels. Expect educators, sports teams, galleries, museums, and music venues to build closed metaverse locations for people to gather and spend at scale over the next few years.

Looking further into the future, many of these metaverses, though not all, will connect and come to resemble Stephenson’s open vision. Closed metaverses will exist as well, but as players accumulate assets, relationships, and their identities in different closed ecosystems, they’ll value being able to bring them into whichever metaverse they want. Just like millions of users valued being able to play Zynga Poker with friends by simply signing in with Facebook, users will value being able to take their assets between different metaverses by storing them on a blockchain, à la Stephenson, rather than with a single provider, like Meta.

“You need to think about the metaverse the same way you think about the internet.”

— Robby Yung, Chief Executive Officer, Animoca Brands

Beyond misunderstanding the word ‘metaverse’, Kelly’s essay is the latest in a long line of op-eds that gives the tech ecosystem, and society’s hopes for progress, a massive and unwarranted obstacle.

Wouldn’t a tone that is more optimistic, more charitable, and more keen to understand be better than one which mocks those trying to build the future? Many entrepreneurs have bad ideas, sure, but the media should work harder to distinguish between the good and the bad, and that means understanding the sector that your interviewees are talking about. That is the media’s job, but too often research, insight, and nuance has been sacrificed at the altar of clicks.

Indeed, tech op-eds tend to follow the crowd, and Kelly’s piece is no different. She is correct to note that AI is 2023’s darling: Kelly observes that AI investment is up a massive 425% from 2020 to 2022. But web3 investment is up 347% in the same period, despite a 74% decline in the past 12 months. As an idea within the ‘web3 umbrella’, we should recognise that the metaverse has made enormous progress in recent years too. Kelly might think that “nobody seems to want it,” but clearly she hasn’t been talking to enough people. (Or doing some similar Googling.)

That criticism hints at the second: a lazy approach that prioritises clicks over insight. Reporting should do more than this. More than just fuelling both sides of a disagreement, more than just trying to entertain. In particular, tech journalism has a role to play in driving a better future. That means understanding different views on what a good future would look like, assessing them on their merits, and rather than mocking them, elevating those trying to make a better future happen.

Ralph Lauren’s Swiss chalet, built by the extended reality studio Emperia.
Ralph Lauren’s Swiss chalet, built by the extended reality studio Emperia.
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Leo is part of the founding team at Culture3. An award-winning editor, he is also the Chair of UniReach, an EdTech non–profit he founded whilst studying at the University of Oxford. He writes about technology, change, and culture.