March 3, 2022

In 1950, sociologist David Riesman declared that we were The Lonely Crowd. In 2000, political scientist Robert D. Putnam told us we were Bowling Alone. If the metaverse promises us one thing, it’s that we will not be lonely.

Meta (formerly Facebook) and Microsoft (having recently purchased online gaming giant Activision) are enthusiastically talking up the “metaverse” — a world of virtual reality-enhanced social interactions that will be more real than reality. It will capture the nuances of offline interaction in massively fulfilling virtual experiences and then monetise them. With JPMorgan and Goldman Sachs declaring it a trillion-dollar market, the metaverse, if it succeeds, will be a constant presence in our lives.

If this is, as some say, a chilling vision of the future, it’s not for the Huxleyesque reasons usually given. If the worry is that people will be drawn away from real life into an online world provided by high-tech devices, that horse has already bolted. Meta’s talk of an “immersive” metaverse belies the fact that we are already well and deeply immersed in online life.

“Self-expression” and “meaning” are already so heavily intertwined with online activity that adding a headset isn’t going to make a  difference, even if the prospect of thousands of loud, angry Twitter users being more immersed is terrifying.

While the metaverse will further the internet’s shift away from text and photos toward VR and video, it is not a revolution, or at least not the one Meta portrays. In the metaverse, people will do things together, share their experiences, and fight with each other, just as they currently do.

The new parts of the metaverse are commercial. Compared with online life today, there will be more things to buy and more money to be made. Personalised avatars, virtual pets, online concerts and shows, digital real estate, and fashion made of pixels instead of fabric: Meta, Microsoft, Verizon, and other giants all hope to serve as brokers for all these, in much the same way Amazon is the middleman and guarantor for its Marketplace transactions. If America were not still so squeamish about sex, one could add teledildonics to the list.

For those inclined to doubt that people will pay for a pair of metaverse trainers, recall that virtual goods in games like World of Warcraft and Pokemon are sold and traded for significant amounts of real-world cash. In the wildly popular Roblox online world, pre-teens eagerly programme and share games, virtual clothes, and virtual houses to earn an imaginary currency, Robux, with a real-world exchange rate set by the Roblox parent company.

Some gamers have invested thousands to purchase spaceships for the online game Star Citizen, even though the game has yet to be released — the virtual spaceships are themselves funding development of the game. And we now have “Decentraland”, a 3D virtual world in which you can own “land” and “objects” in the same way one can offline, thanks to the blockchain technology of NFTs, which immutably declares who owns what.

So far, virtual goods in games have been confined to their online universes — you could spend $7,000 on a World of Warcraft elf, but you couldn’t take it out of the game. NFTs remove that limitation, allowing one to proudly declare ownership of a virtual hat across the entire metaverse. This Brave New World may not be more immersive than the current internet, but it will be more acquisitive, more possessive, and more status-conscious.

Viral competition has already proven to be a moneymaker: at one point, Facebook drew 30% of its revenue from Zynga’s Farmville and its clones, games that exploited social competition to encourage users to pay for virtual crops. Roblox and Decentraland are blueprints for how Meta and Microsoft hope to turn the whole world into Farmville. Just as the internet monetised personal information to better target advertising, the metaverse will monetise online interaction by having your friends do the advertising to you. Who wants to be the last on their virtual block to have a virtual mansion?

The result will be the monetisation of identity, something already visible in the burgeoning industries of paying for instruction on how to be patriotic, how to be anti-racist, how to be Christian, how to be eco-conscious. The metaverse seeks to make money off of less-loaded aspects of identity by fostering intra-group solidarity through purchases. As sociologist Erving Goffman wrote, “To be a given kind of person, then, is not merely to possess the required attributes, but also to sustain the standards of conduct and appearance that one’s social grouping attaches thereto.”

In the metaverse, everyone can potentially be a seller and advertiser in addition to a buyer, yet the power will chiefly lie with the companies. They will exert significant influence over group standards of conduct and will have a greater ability to steer those standards in profitable directions. (The metaverse will also offer malicious actors far greater ability to pervert those standards, but that is a whole different can of worms.) In the run-up to the 2020 election, Meta (then Facebook) restricted all its users from forwarding private messages to more than five people.

The goal, evidently, was to stop “harmful” content, probably political, from exploding across tight in-groups within Facebook’s user population. Such blanket restrictions are indeed effective by their very nature, but imagine what they would mean in the metaverse: private online groupings could be prohibited by their hosting platform (Meta or Microsoft, say) from sharing particular content, encouraged to share more innocuous content, or simply barred from interacting in certain ways.

Yet group affiliations are strong, and aggrieved groups have a way of sticking together against the powers that be. Online life, above all, offers one the chance to pick their tribe, their gang, their comrades. Offline we are limited geographically in our affiliations, but online, you can scour the world for your crowd. The explosion of conspiracy theories, extremism, and a general distrust of any elite opinion is not a consequence of individual bad actors online, but the simple ability, brought to us by the internet, to find people who share and reinforce our opinion, no matter what that opinion may be. The metaverse will supercharge these trends. Where people formerly congregated in Facebook groups, Reddit groups, or blog chats, they will now find cozy virtual spaces in which they can be welcomed.

Offline life will not be more “real” than the metaverse, merely less affirming. There will be even less need to congregate with those who disagree with you in the slightest if, by going online, one can not only exchange words with identically-minded individuals, but can gain all the reassuring benefits of human interaction with them.

There’s a cost to pay as well. The price of group homogeneity in any regard (ideological, cultural, demographic) is a far greater rejection of deviation. Urbanisation and immigration may have caused melting-pot tendencies in the last century, but the metaverse offers previously unthinkable possibilities for undoing the heterogeneity of modern life, separating us out into monocultural strata in which every hobbyist subculture, every sub-Marxist movement, and every sexual fetish can easily find mutual affirmation. Individuality will dissolve into the unified mindset of one’s chosen monocultures. Once having joined a stratum, members will naturally play down their differences in favour of their commonalities, to the point that they forget those differences.

The result will not be a melting-pot but a disconnected patchwork. Conformity will no longer be a meaningful concept because we will be able to conform to anything. You can pick whatever social norms you’d like to follow, but having chosen them you will follow them to the utmost. No group will feel big enough to be confident of its dominance; each group will police its boundaries rigidly, forming a kaleidoscope of what anthropologist Mary Douglas defined as latent groups. Each will feel threatened by some number of others, just as the Left and the Right are both equally convinced today that the other is winning.

In the metaverse, we will not be alone. But some of us will wish we could be.

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