In 2007, a group of Stanford researchers decided to explore a novel question: What effect would a person’s choice of online avatars have on their behavior?
Their findings were startling. Not only would the user operate the avatar in a way consistent with its appearance in the digital world, but the avatar’s characteristics would shape the user’s behavior back in the real one. A person who chooses to be taller digitally becomes a more aggressive negotiator in daily life. Someone who dons an inventor’s lab coat online is more creative at real-world meetings. Adopting a character digitally, the researchers found, can essentially change a personality, in a turn that has come to be known as the Proteus Effect.
That phenomenon could become suddenly relevant with the advent of the metaverse, the long-fantasized ideal of a persistent, virtual world that allows a limitless number of users to roam, play, learn, work and, yes, buy.
Mark Zuckerberg last week outlined his vision — and commitment by Facebook’s newly christened parent Meta to spend billions over the next decade — to build such a world. The company possesses a level of investment and consumer reach even highly successful virtual-world firms like Roblox or Fortnite do not.
Some greeted the announcement with justifiable skepticism, what with Facebook’s lack of a hardware platform, its seeming late entry to a game others have long played and its elision of the technical and corporate challenges it faces. But if Facebook — or, for that matter, a host of others who have been envisioning a metaverse for years — could indeed pull one off, it would reorder how we live in dramatic ways. A fully realized metaverse would sharply intensify existing trends, open fresh opportunities and, just as critically, create a whole new set of problems.
“When it comes to the metaverse, the headline should be ‘Haters gonna hate,'” said Rabindra Ratan, associate professor in the Department of Media and Information at Michigan State University who has researched wide-scale virtual interconnectedness. “The reality is that there are all kinds of reasons to be optimistic about this world,” he said.
“There will be badness, too,” he added. “I just think it will be a new kind of badness.”
Hearing about the metaverse can, as a popular Instagram account suggested last week, make us feel like the listeners in that Charlie Day bulletin-board meme: bombarded by a lot of theories that mean little.
It’s an understandable reaction, and may be partly due to hearing someone sell us a whole world instead of simply talking about a piece of it or building those elements one at a time. After all, when current internet fiefdoms were constructed, billions of us were not subjected to an all-encompassing pitch 10 years in advance.
“Setting out to build the metaverse is not actually the best way to wind up with the metaverse,” John Carmack, an executive-turned-consultant at Meta’s Oculus said at the same presentation as Zuckerberg; he instead advocated quietly tackling the pieces that would coalesce into it.
But that doesn’t mean a potential grand result should be ignored. After all, the idea of people making friends, making a fortune, losing a fortune or meeting their life partners while staring at a piece of glass in their bedrooms would have sounded as unlikely to someone 35 years ago as the metaverse does to us now. In the digital world, present implausibility is rarely an indicator of future viability.
“The very idea of Metaverse means an ever-growing share of our lives, labor, leisure, time, spend, wealth, happiness and relationships will be inside virtual worlds, rather than just extended or aided through digital devices and software,” Matthew Ball, a digital expert who has published extensively about the metaverse and recently sold a book on the topic, wrote in an email to The Washington Post.
Some metaverse supporters, including Zuckerberg, have touted its potential for a virtual office. But not everyone sees that as an improvement, to say the least. “So instead of sending a message in Slack in 2D I see a 3D avatar of myself sitting at my virtual monitor looking at the same Slack message? What does that do?” Clay Shirky, the educational tech executive at New York University who is a longtime chronicler of technology and its effects on society, said in an interview.
Shirky said the metaverse-based office ignores a hidden truth about remote work. “Zoom is so successful precisely because it dials presence down,” he said. “You don’t feel like you’re in the office, which is why we can spend so much time on it. We don’t want to feel like we’re in the office more.”
But Ratan notes that the metaverse would yield a range of tools impossible in current remote work, like a software developer with three massive monitors she couldn’t have at home or an autoworker able to tinker with an entire car. Meetings might even be more equitable.
“A lot of the superficial-based biases we have now that might make a person not listened to or afraid to speak up could be diminished if we’re appearing at meetings as avatars based more on our ideas and achievements,” he said. (Ratan is in talks with Facebook to receive funding for his lab.)
Work transformations could go even further. Asking how the metaverse will change work is applying the wrong paradigm, say metaverse experts. It’s the labor economy itself that could change, and talking about it in terms of more immersive videoconferencing is like focusing on the wrench that fixes the subway engine instead of what the metaverse really is: the entire system of tracks.
“New companies, products and services will emerge to manage everything from payment processing to identity verification, hiring ad delivery, content creation, security,” Ball wrote on his website. He also describes in the piece such innovations as in-world “laborers who choose to live outside cities (that) will be able to participate in the ‘high value’ economy via virtual labor.”
One of the biggest opportunities could come in education. Anyone who has tried to ensure a 10-year-old learns at home without distraction the past 20 months longs for a new model. The metaverse’s immersion would provide a teacher more tools and students fewer reasons to tune out.
Proponents of the metaverse, which has existed in both fictional and crude real-world applications since at least the 1990s, have stressed how it will facilitate social opportunities — enabling, say, a zap from our living rooms to a football game, then to a holiday gathering across the country.
But, much as social media can feel like empty calories compared to actual friendship, the metaverse may wind up inadequately simulating real life. “Sure, you can feel like you’re at the Thanksgiving reunion from your couch,” Janet Murray, director of Georgia Tech’s Digital Integrative Liberal Arts Center and a pioneer in studying digital connectivity, said in an interview. “But don’t want you to be able to taste the turkey?”
She also worried, in Facebook’s case, about a kind of surveillance capitalism in which corporations increasingly infiltrate the metaverse, as they have begun to do on Roblox.
“There’s something exciting in a technology of representing things that are not physically there,” she said. “But that is separate from a corporation owning a single platform that will become a nightmare of constant consumer pitches.” And our regular functioning as avatars could be a privacy minefield, with far more known about our preferences and movements than in the current disembodied internet.
The state of misinformation, a scourge of current social media, is also unclear in this new world.
There is some hope among experts that virtuality will address the issue, requiring or eliciting a more concrete event than, say, a two-sentence conspiracist tweet.
But the blurring of a persistent virtual world with the real one may also enhance falsehoods. If incorrect claims seem convincing as disembodied words on a screen, they’ll even more persuasive embedded in 3D. As Ethan Zuckerman, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst professor who created a metaverse in the mid-’90s asked in the Atlantic of Facebook, “How will a company that can block only 6% of Arabic-language hate content deal with dangerous speech when it’s worn on an avatar’s T-shirt or revealed at the end of a virtual fireworks display?”
One of the biggest effects could be a larger reality distortion, with users struggling to distinguish the actual from the synthetic. The virtual world Second Life has already yielded anecdotes in this vein, as people either neglect the physical parts of their lives or treat the two as interchangeable.
The possibility of submerging ourselves even deeper into a digital existence catches the eye of tech observers like Julian Dibbell, whose book “My Tiny Life” tracks both the seductiveness of such virtual parallelism and how it jeopardized his real-life relationship.
“It’s always been an overwhelming question: Where do you draw the line at what is and isn’t too much immersion in the virtual world?” Dibbell said in an interview. “We’re all going to be channeled into these worlds even harder. And we’re already pretty well-channeled into them.”