Everyone wants to build “the metaverse.” Last week, Microsoft announced the integration of its Mesh product, which is a collaborative virtual platform, into Teams, its Slack-like video conferencing and communications platform. Given the prevailing technological zeitgeist, this announcement was, of course, referred to as Microsoft’s foray into “the metaverse.” Or, depending on your assessment of the possibility of metaverse interoperability, “a metaverse.”
Facebook is obviously all-in on the metaverse, as is almost every other large technology company. Whether the concept of a metaverse comes to fruition as a persistent, alternate reality remains to be seen. But, like crypto, maybe the end state of the metaverse doesn’t matter; it’s possible that dedicating billions of dollars and the smartest minds of a generation to an aspiration creates something very special and valuable, even if the outcome isn’t a metaverse, per se.
What’s generally missing from discussions of the metaverse is the fact that no one can convincingly, coherently describe what it “looks” like: like obscenity, we are expected to know the metaverse when we see it. Maybe the metaverse is ultimately a VR environment with a very impressive marketing campaign behind it, distilling a grand (if nebulous) vision into a particular product experience not dissimilarly to how the Segway “revolutionized personalized transportation” by delivering an expensive scooter to mall cops. But maybe the metaverse is something far more potent and important than that; maybe it’s the virtual simulacrum of the human condition, preserving our most cherished traits into a digital snowglobe that bestows immortality and omnipotence upon humanity.
No one knows. Very smart people are currently advocating for a vision of the metaverse, but that vision is, as yet, aspirational. Unless we believe the metaverse describes the currently extant blend of bits and atoms that almost the entire population of Earth enjoys, then the metaverse is something that the world will, at some point, simply ease into, like an old man into a nice, warm bath. I eagerly await that future.
But it is the future. And the current technology landscape, at least from the consumer perspective, is not a metaverse. While we wait for the expansive, elevated, lofty vision of the metaverse to materialize, we’re left to face a much more vulgar reality: that digital advertising is the economic engine of the internet.
Manifest destiny was a 19th-century political slogan that motivated the annexation of Western territories and was facilitated by the construction of the US intercontinental rail network, principally financed by the US government. If the digital equivalent of manifest destiny is to shift engagement into a metaverse, then that migration will be financed by the digital advertising businesses of the companies constructing the virtual railroads that will deliver this new medium. The ambition of building a new nexus of consumer engagement, unconstrained by the limitations and broken incentives of the ad-funded internet, is soaring and noble. But the pursuit of that ideal will be financed by digital advertising.