With reports that Facebook Inc. is expected to rebrand as a metaverse company, the not-so-novel term has made its way into headlines around the world.
Technology news website The Verge reported Tuesday that the company, known for its social network and messaging platforms, will announce a new company name to better reflect its ambitions to build the metaverse.
The move comes as the California firm faces scrutiny from lawmakers over its platforms' negative effects on users, spread of misinformation, and monopolistic tendencies.
"Facebook has plenty of reasons to want us to look at something else," said Beth Coleman, a professor at the University of Toronto's Institute of Communications, Culture, Information and Technology.
But beyond Facebook's legal challenges, experts say the metaverse could be the next frontier of the social web where companies create new platforms to hook users.
What is the metaverse?
Like many modern technologies, the idea has roots in science fiction. Neal Stephenson's novel Snow Crash first mentioned the metaverse in 1992, describing it as a shared, virtual space where users can interact.
It isn't a platform or experience owned by one single company. While it's often used to describe digital worlds in which users can communicate, play and do business with others, the idea is much broader.
"It's this kind of catch-all term for anything that seems like it's something that comes after the mobile internet, which was the thing that came after the desktop internet," said Adi Robertson, senior reporter for The Verge.
Ramona Pringle, an associate professor at the Ryerson University RTA School of Media, says it's an idea decades in the making. Virtual spaces inhabited by digital avatars — popularized by the virtual world of Second Life in the 2000s — promised to "take over our lives" long before social networks had users glued to their phones all day long.
The metaverse as it's now described would be an evolution from that original idea combined with social networking as we know it today, she says.
Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) technology is expected to a driving force for the virtual worlds by creating immersive experiences for users, and could further blur the lines between real and digital life.
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What will users do there?
Facebook's vision of the metaverse isn't too far off from Stephenson's sci-fi concept.
The company describes it as a "set of virtual spaces where you can create and explore with other people who aren't in the same physical space as you."
But the metaverse will go beyond providing space to chat with new and old avatar-based friends. In the video game worlds of Roblox and Fortnite, early entrants to the metaverse popular among younger players, pop stars have held live concerts and digital goods are traded for in-game currency, for example.
"There's this desire to be more immersive and ... an active participant in these virtual experiences because we realize that we're just going to have to spend a lot more time there and we're OK with that," said Annie Zhang, host of the podcast Hello Metaverse and a senior product designer at Roblox.
Zhang predicts a future with economies that transcend the real world — an idea that began years ago in Second Life.
She says content creators could use virtual platforms to sell and release new music or videos, freeing some from the constraints of algorithms they say devalue their work.
Others may turn to virtual worlds to buy and sell "land" or other goods using cryptocurrency and non-fungible tokens (NTF), said Zhang. That's already happening in Decentraland, a platform that uses the Ethereum blockchain.
"It's a product of people not feeling like one they have control or an understanding of systems that they have to participate in," she said, noting concerns that younger generations will struggle to own property in the real world as one example.
Currently, platforms like Roblox and Fortnite operate as walled gardens, run by the companies that own them. Some imagine a future within the metaverse where users could wander between worlds with a single avatar, carrying goods they've created or own from one platform to another.
Why is Facebook getting in on this?
Interest in building the metaverse is likely driven by financial goals and collecting user data for marketing, Pringle says. She expects companies will advertise on metaverse platforms, bringing in revenue for the companies that host them.
That could make the metaverse "a very compelling, very sticky and very immersive medium for ads" with users "still being targeted by people who want to sell us either products or ideologies," Pringle said.
A shift toward the metaverse also serves as a rebuke of social media. For users unhappy about how social networks are "splintering society" or impacting users' mental health, companies are promoting their investments into new kinds of experiences as a way forward, Pringle said.
Though Facebook's push into the metaverse comes at the same time it's under fire, Coleman notes that the company has been laying the groundwork for years.
Facebook purchased Oculus, a startup that builds VR headsets, back in 2014.
After years of what she calls "mediocre" virtual worlds built by various companies, Coleman says the success of the metaverse will ultimately depend on what company releases the "killer app" that users flock to.
Given Facebook Inc.'s success connecting people online — it boasts more than 2.85 billion monthly users on Facebook alone — it could be the company to do just that, she adds.
"If you were going to bet on a horse in terms of who is going to make this important to not just a population, but globally, you'd say that Facebook has a pretty damn good track record."
Written by Jason Vermes with files from Sameer Chhabra and Reuters.