An update on the metaverse
We’re all familiar with the concept of a virtual reality (VR) world—the kind you enter into when you strap on a headset and step into the shoes of a person or animal. The metaverse is what we get when that VR world becomes real.
The term was coined by computer scientist Neil Stephens in 2016 to describe an immersive environment where physical locations are replaced by digital ones. For example, instead of going to your cubicle at work, you could log onto Slack and attend meetings there. Or you could walk down the street and visit any number of stores without ever leaving your house. It’s basically like being inside a giant video game.
In theory, it sounds great. But for many people, the idea of stepping out of their real lives and living in a digital realm isn’t as enticing as it might be for others. A report from research firm CB Insights found that nearly half of Americans would consider moving to a different city if they had the chance to experience the metaverse first-hand.
But why? I spoke to several experts who explained why some people may not want to move into the metaverse.
« It can feel isolating, » said Dr. Jennifer Riela, assistant professor of psychology at University of Southern New Hampshire. « When users are interacting with other people online, it can make them feel like they’re missing out. »
Riela notes that most interactions in our current society take place face-to-face, which she says makes us more comfortable with socializing. In the metaverse, however, this comfort zone shifts because we aren’t used to engaging with people over a screen. We also don’t have as much control over how we look while using our headsets, so it can lead to feelings of disorientation.
Dr. David Greenfield, author of How Media Shapes Your World, agrees. He told me that the metaverse can feel isolating because we’ve become accustomed to communicating via text, email, phone calls, etc., rather than through human interaction.
« You’re talking to somebody over a screen but you’re not really seeing them, » he said. « That distance between two people has been getting greater and greater and greater over time. »
So what does this mean for those who do choose to live in the metaverse?
Dr. Andrew Gendron, a psychologist who specializes in understanding technology use and
addiction, tells me that the metaverse isn’t necessarily bad news. Instead, it just requires planning.
Gendron suggests setting boundaries around metaverse usage. He likens it to someone drinking too much alcohol. If you drink every night, you’ll likely end up with a hangover the next day, even though you didn’t have anything else to drink besides alcohol. By having healthy habits surrounding the metaverse, it should help anyone avoid becoming overly dependent upon it.
For instance, you might set limits on the amount of time you spend on the platform during certain hours. You might also try creating a plan outlining what you want to accomplish each week/month/year in the metaverse. This will help keep you motivated.
Ultimately, though, it comes down to making sure you find ways to connect with friends and family outside of the metaverse. That way, you won’t miss out on the joys of real life.
« If you only live in the metaverse, then you’re probably going to lose touch with reality, » Riela said. « I think real life is important. »
And therein lies another problem. As we’ve seen recently with Facebook’s announcement about its new dating app, the company tends to attract individuals who see themselves above everyone else.
That means that the content posted on these platforms often reflects the values of the audience who chooses to join — something psychologists call confirmation bias. And according to Greenfield, this type of thinking often leads to misinformation.
« There are groups of people trying to manipulate information to serve their purposes, » he said. « They’re doing things to change public opinion. »
Greenfield pointed specifically to how Russian trolls manipulated posts on Twitter after the 2016 election. They spread false information designed to divide Americans along racial lines, among other issues.
Even if you don’t believe that the Russians were successful at changing opinions on the internet, you have to admit that it’s difficult to know everything that’s happening on these platforms. What if you missed out on a friend tagging you in a photo because you weren’t looking at your feed? Who knows what else people are hiding behind screens?
This is especially true when companies such as Facebook fail to address problems on their own platform. Mark Zuckerberg once claimed that his company doesn’t censor political speech, yet clearly isn’t taking action against hate speech.
These examples show that the metaverse still has plenty of room to grow before it becomes truly accessible.
Still, it’s worth noting that for many people, the metaverse already offers solutions to many of the challenges of everyday life. It’s easier to meet new people. There are fewer distractions. And thanks to advancements in AI, it’s possible to interact with computers as if they were real people. As long as we continue to embrace the good aspects of the metaverse while avoiding the bad, it seems unlikely that the future of our existence will be defined by isolation.