It’s been a bad first quarter for the company formerly known as Facebook. In the opening weeks of the year, the company lost an important ruling in a case against the Federal Trade Commission, which is trying to break up the company on monopoly grounds. It also lost a staggering $232 billion in market valuation. The financial losses were driven in large part by the company’s spending to rebrand itself as Meta and clearly position itself as the industry leader in what it is calling “the Metaverse,” giving an uppercase M to a word that Neal Stephenson introduced in his 1992 novel Snow Crash. So far, as the financial losses suggest, Meta’s metaverse has been something of a joke, as demonstrated by this clip of a “rave”:
Since Mark Zuckerberg announced Facebook’s decision to invest in the metaverse, it’s drawn comparisons to the previously hot virtual world Second Life—and it’s largely not intended to be a compliment. But to dismiss the metaverse—with a capital M or not—as the reincarnation of Second Life is to miss something crucial. Second Life’s scope and scale has always been considerably narrower than the current hype for a metaverse. Where Second Life proposed an alternative reality for its users, the metaverse is a road map to enclose both the virtual and actual worlds.
Second Life was launched in 2003 by Linden Lab, whose CEO Philip Rosedale served as the public face of the company. From nearly the beginning, Linden’s vision was that Second Life be a place for escapism—users would visit the three-dimensional virtualized world for no other reason than that it was somewhere else to be. Much of the architecture was borrowed from the logics of game worlds like The Sims, but Second Life was careful to distinguish itself as something other than a game. Its purpose was to explore the new horizons to living opened up by virtual representation and to allow its users the ability to create what they wanted and be who they wanted. Users lived out elaborate fantasy lives with new and sometimes variable identities, divorced from the confines of their daily grind. Some married and raised families in Second Life, developing whole communities with their own norms and rituals.
This all took place in an integrated space that was stitched together across servers rather than copied in multiple instances. This meant every user was in effect experiencing the same thing at the same time, should they be in the same part of Second Life. In his book The Making of Second Life, journalist Wagner James Au describes the ability to collectively be in a place and create in real time as the thing that set Second Life apart from its analogues. Persistent spaces with highly customizable and manipulable avatars in effect meant time and space meant something in this virtual world. People were able to live in Second Life and alter it by doing so, opening up possibilities for new kinds of sociality and getting closer to a presumably less dystopian version of the virtual experience described in Snow Crash’s Metaverse. As Web 2.0 was contemporaneously being born in fits and starts, Second Life promised its users arguably the most ambitious form of social networking and user generated content.
Within a year of its founding, the number of users expanded to about 15,000 and the real-world relations of property, money, and speculation began to encroach on Linden Lab’s dreamworld. What had been a space premised on self-actualization and escape rapidly became a place with ownership rights and an in-world currency, called the linden. As Au’s book chronicles, the period from 2004–07 saw an increase in speculators enclosing virtual space and selling virtual goods in hopes of realizing a profit on what had originally been marketed as a commons. As early as 2006, Second Life saw an influx of real-world companies pushing promotions and advertising into the virtual space. You could exchange linden for dollars, leading to fluctuations in value, as well as other virtual currencies. By the early 2010s, it was being used to exchange for Bitcoin and other burgeoning cryptocurrencies, a scheme some charged could facilitate money laundering. By this time, much of the speculator frenzy had died down, as did media attention toward the platform.
But Second Life has persisted. Today it maintains itself on a subscriber model with about 70 million registrants and an average of around 200,000 daily active users. (There’s a free basic membership; you can also pay $99 per year or $11.99 per month for a premium membership.) Virtual commodities are still bought and sold, but brand engagement has basically ceased. After reporting a bit of a renaissance of user engagement during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, Second Life has claimed a current GDP of about $650 million, making it one of the largest virtual economies in the world, but this depends on how you measure economy in virtual experiences and indeed what counts as virtual.
Second Life has often colloquially been referred to as a metaverse, but that doesn’t mean it should be confused with what contemporary proponents of the idea have in mind. In some tellings, the metaverse represents the collection of hardware and software that makes virtual and augmented reality possible. In others, it’s a set of virtual experiences that vary in scope and scale, but that exist in a shared set of access points, not unlike Second Life.
But the scope of what Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg has proposed goes beyond those definitions. Whether or not Zuckerberg is the best authority on the matter, it is his vision that has received the most attention and his name that has become most synonymous with the term metaverse. So, what precisely is that vision, and how is it similar to or different from what we’ve all heard before during various hype cycles for virtual life?
For Zuckerberg and Meta, the metaverse is a pitch for political and technical changes to the way we think of the internet itself. That requires an economic and regulatory system that is favorable to the enclosure of virtual spaces in order to create property. To this end, Zuckerberg and other metaverse evangelists have pushed the idea of Web3, a decentralized form of commodification reliant on blockchain technologies that would serve as verification of ownership, such as with nonfungible tokens, or NFTs. At present, Meta is encouraging users to freely create and share their creations in its own free basics world creation application Horizon Worlds, but it’s highly limited, suggesting that the purpose is merely to whet an appetite for a more sophisticated marketplace of user-generated worlds in Meta in the near future. Whatever the company is able to extract off the top of sales in this marketplace will presumably be bolstered by the behavioral data it can capture from gaze, voice, and gestures in immersive environments. Facebook already tracks what users respond to through scrolling, clicking, and sharing content, but in interactive VR, this could mean anything from measuring how long they stare at something to sharing data on what brand affinities their avatars suggest to mining their hand movements during intimate moments. In a recent interview with Wired, Rosedale described the picture Meta marketing materials paints as a “very, very bad outcome” for virtual worlds.
On the technical side, Meta has advocated for a common protocol or portal that links myriad virtual and actual objects. Meta is already laying the groundwork for this by acquiring a number of virtual and augmented reality companies to supplement its 2014 acquisition of virtual reality headset producer Oculus, and more closely integrating its Oculus products with Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp. This allows users already familiar with or reliant on the company’s services to become associated with the metaverse before they even see the 3D version of it. But, as Second Life and others discovered, persuading users and companies to accede to a singular set of economic relations is a daunting task. Among early adopters to virtual reality, there has been a notable backlash against Facebook’s attempt to enclose and standardize virtual life, as exemplified by the hashtag #notmymetaverse.
But if Meta succeeds? That could mean a new internet, maybe even a new mutation of capitalism as we know it. The success of gaming experiences from FarmVille to Fortnite demonstrate how willing to work and pay for digital trinkets everyday people are. Barring motion sickness, the experience of entering immersive virtual worlds can be exhilarating to the point of becoming addictive. The influx of investment from people seeking to make a profit in this new space and the atomized conditions the COVID-19 pandemic has foisted on the entire world all but guarantee at least some increased enthusiasm for more integration between virtual and actual life. This could mean a further abdication of the problems of the “real” world as distracted users allow corporations to reach deeper into their personal lives. It could likewise give birth to new forms of exploitation as people’s data and even likeness can be appropriated for purposes they would find near impossible to fully understand or control.
One solution could be the investment of the public sector in maintaining a repository of high-quality, free, open-access virtual assets that users could use to build and maintain their own publicly hosted virtual worlds and experiences. This would harness the spirit of the generation of early adopters who have often freely shared their expertise and creations using creative commons licensing in a bid to undercut the profiteers who hope to make a more extractive metaverse. The preservation of a robust and user-friendly commons is vital to allowing users to determine their own forms of exchange and ownership. Accompanying these virtual objects would be a regulatory apparatus that allows for voluntary connection between experiences and that could defend privacy and other social norms. The creation of a public trust for virtual world building and oversight, as has been discussed in proposals for a public option for other media systems, could offer an alternative to the more dystopian traits of the metaverse.
If this sounds far-fetched, it’s already happening in some places. In Seoul, South Korea has already begun work on a “Metaverse Seoul” version of the city. The island of Barbados has also purchased land in a virtual world to build a virtual embassy. A set of virtual worlds in the public interest with legible mechanisms of accountability could lead to new ways to configure social and economic life or could simply be a free space of occasional escape, much as Second Life originally promised. In the totalizing vision being sold by evangelists of the metaverse, we risk falling into a digitalized world from which there is no escape.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.