How to ruin the metaverse? Build it around profit and centralization

Reading back through a transcript from Facebook’s investor-disappointing fourth-quarter earnings call has solidified my perspective that we need a third-party, benevolent central entity for the metaverse. A sort of central digital clearinghouse that can transport me from place to place, inclusive of the platform-locked areas that will inevitably come to constitute a portion of our online selves.

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The concept of the metaverse is flexible, with companies, individuals and dreamers coming up with differing exact formulations of the idea. Still, we need somewhere to meet, so after reading a host of shots at this particular goal, I think it’s fair to say that the metaverse is a connected digital environment that is inherently social and based around individual identity.

Digging into that definition, the metaverse will be connected in that it’s online and likely dynamic, digital in that it is purely synthetic, inherently social in that it revolves more around human-to-human interaction than solo activities, and based around individual identity as it seems generally agreed that folks are going to have some form of self in the mix. Avatars, NFTs, pick your poison.

Facebook parent company Meta is all-in on the concept, with new hardware and software for the metaverse costing the social networking giant a mint. You can understand why Meta wants to win the metaverse, with its core apps seemingly late in their maturity cycles and younger, more nimble foes in the social space doing to Facebook what Facebook did to a prior generation of consumer networking applications.

Meta needs to win theĀ next cycle to maintain its growth, especially in light of privacy changes on iOS that are showing up in its business results. So, metaverse.

From a corporate perspective, Meta’s drive to win the nascent if not-really-new concept of the metaverse makes sense. From a consumer perspective, I’m not stoked about Facebook winning.

Profits, centralization and the metaverse

The story of Facebook’s progression to Meta is — compressing mightily — this: It’s a social network that added more users over time from an artificially constrained genesis (college students) before morphing into a collection of major social applications built through acquisitions, then to a shared data-core with different social apps positioned on top. Today, it’s a mega-corp with slowing core business and big hopes about the future.

Meta’s metaverse plans are, from that timeline, not small. They matter in that the company’s future growth is predicated on their success. This means that whatever Meta builds will have a strong monetization angle. Which, thanks to the company’s DNA, is fair to presume will center around advertising and a unique identity likely tied to the company’s existing account system.

Not to bang the blockchain drum this early in the day, but Meta’s metaverse plans are a bit too centralized for my tastes. Even more, I don’t want to participate in more ad-driven activities, which Meta would likely include in its metaverse future. I am already suffering from advertising poisoning, in which seeing an advert for your company in a multimedia environment makes me hate your brand, regardless of how well-targeted the promotion may be. Leave me alone.

So while I don’t really fault Meta taking a big swing on a future business line, I am not interested in the metaverse becoming the identity hub of Facebook’s advertising empire.

But I do like the idea of the metaverse, as a gamer and social person who enjoys hanging out with humans both digitally and IRL. The very concept of persistent, shared digital spaces is good. I like it, and want to see it come to be.

However, who will build the central hub that we come to depend on for our metaverse activities if not Meta? Microsoft is too corporate to get it right, even if it has managed to build a gaming empire despite its more enterprise roots. Steam? Not in the business of making worlds as much as it is building a store for others (and doing it well). Sony? Doesn’t seem likely.

What about blockchain? I am skeptical. Using wallets as the core digital ID tag of the future feels more financial than social, which matters. And blockchains aren’t inherently social or visual, which seems far from the right set of DNA elements. Throw in the fact that blockchain products have a high propensity for financialization — not part of our core metaverse definition — and regular security issues, and it appears that today’s cryptocurrency tech is simply too complex, slow, expensive and incentive-misaligned to be the correct answer.

After chatting about this issue yesterday with Natasha Mascarenhas on the podcast, I have come to think that we need a central metaverse entity that can translate between what Meta is building, what’s being built on the blockchain, and elsewhere. A passport system perhaps? A central identity hub? But it can’t be based on any single company’s identity service, or that of any single blockchain, and succeed in building something that is mass-market accessible and user-favoring and good at the same time.

The corporate identity point we’ve covered via our Meta example. The blockchain point is a bit more nuanced, in that blockchains that produce desired token price appreciation aren’t good for mass-market adopters, which means that a broad metaverse would have an inherent class structure by the time it reached general acceptance. Which would be gross as hell.

Maybe what we need is an open-source service that acts as a spaceport of sorts, allowing me to swap between different fleets (ecosystems? apps?) in a manner that is low-friction (low-cost, I suppose)? Is anyone building that?

We can’t let an inherently centralized entity (Meta, etc.) or an inherently for-profit concept (blockchain, etc.) occupy this central space. It’s the high ground of what could be the future of online socializing. Let’s hope someone builds something that doesn’t have to sell its soul for never-ending, year-over-year revenue gains to please shareholders. That metaverse sounds like an ocean that just gets dirtier and dirtier over time. No thanks.