By Sadev Parikh
Eric Ravenscraft’s Wired article shows us the difficulty of defining the “metaverse,” which may be better understood through the lens of Wittgenstein’s idea of family resemblances than through any attempt at clear-cut definition. Metaverse can be seen as a concept made up of family resemblances that include elements of virtual reality, augmented reality, and haptic feedback. While these technical elements may ground the concept, various metaverses could vary along parameters such as the centralization of power, financialization, and degree of anonymity for users. Armed with this framework, we might predict how the metaverse may manifest in the United States.
Considering centralization of power, we see two competing visions: one concentrated around Facebook (i.e., Meta), and the vision of a “Web 3” that might include worlds like Decentraland built around principles of decentralized decision-making and power enabled by blockchain technology.
A Facebook-driven metaverse could become the dominant mode, simply through its incumbent network effects and persistence as a premier destination for advertisers, as well as customer lock-in stemming from adjacent services (such as Messenger, Groups) that are increasingly essential to participating in modern life. The “Future Threats to Digital Democracy” report captures internet harms directly tied to the influence of Facebook and its business model on the internet.
Digitally impaired cognition is driven by social media content algorithms “engineered for virality, sensationalism, provocation and increased attention.” Reality apathy comes from the diffusion of re-shared negative content that is upranked by Facebook’s algorithms. It’s easy to imagine that a Facebook-driven metaverse is therefore likely to replicate the same features given Facebook’s need to monetize.
Only now, Facebook’s paradigm may disintermediate not only our cognitive lives via smartphones but also our physical interactions, from the mundane like work meetings to even intimate moments like hugging enabled by haptic feedback suits. That said, perhaps Libra’s failure and Facebook’s February stock plummet portend a future where Mark Zuckerberg’s dreams no longer translate inevitably to our reality.
We might then ask, is a block-chain metaverse the panacea? It could be, but current trends leave room for skepticism. Trends like NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, seem to represent a trend towards the financialization of the internet—and these NFTs dominate the existing Web3 metaverses like Decentraland. While this trend has offered some artists ways to make money from their art, it more often seems to function as a way for tech founders to produce wealth via rapidly appreciating speculative value. Today’s state of celebrities showing off $200,000 JPEGs of apes on talk-shows may only be a blip in the history of metaverses, but the underlying social realities of vast income inequality sustaining a blockchain metaverse whose most well-known use-case is financial speculation seem unlikely to disappear in the near future.
Next, we might consider anonymity and the state of privacy in the metaversal future. The visions of the metaverses outlined above, a Facebook-driven centralized one or a decentralized one built on blockchain principles, both carry disturbing implications for anonymity and privacy. At its core, Facebook’s business relies on the personalized advertising that sustains surveillance capitalism. Blockchain technology’s raison d’être is transparency and accountability, not privacy. Furthermore, economic disparities suggest that lower income users will opt for cheaper, freer services that exchange privacy for use while the wealthy pay for more privacy-protective features.
Only time can tell whether we end up with a world of Facebook’s metaverse, decentralized metaverse, both, or something else entirely. Legislation that mandates platform interoperability may be essential to ensuring that competing visions of the metaverse get a chance to win out. Social connections are likely essential to the success of any metaverse seeking to offer communal experiences to rival the real world.
Interoperability legislation should therefore ensure that the social graph and data that Facebook has cultivated be shared with others who can offer innovative alternatives to Facebook’s services, while fostering the development of technical standards that preserve the privacy of individual users in the process. Sectoral regulation and antitrust will also play their part — with regulatory changes from the Gensler-led SEC possibly affecting the cryptocurrencies underpinning the blockchain-based metaverse and a Khan-led FTC taking on Facebook.
And finally, we the people will vote with our data and our dollars for our preferred version of Plato’s ca– I mean metaverse. Perhaps we’ll opt out entirely.
Note: This piece was originally written in February 2022 for Professor Laura Donohue’s “Social Media Law” course at Georgetown University Law Center.