In a booth at Ted’s Fish Fry, in Troy, New York, my friend Daniel Beck and I sketched out our plans for the metaverse. It was November 1994, just as the graphical web was becoming a thing, and we thought that the 3-D web could be just a few tweaks down the road. In our version of the metaverse, a server would track the identity of objects and their location in virtual space, but you’d render the objects locally, loaded to your hard drive off of a CD-ROM. It made a certain sense: Most users were on sub-56k modems, and AOL was shipping out enough CD-ROMs to pave Los Angeles each week.
To be very clear, Daniel and I were in no way being original. We were hoping to re-create the vision that Neal Stephenson had outlined in his 1992 book, Snow Crash. We were both (barely) self-conscious enough to understand that Snow Crash took place in a dystopia, and that Stephenson was positing a beautiful virtual world because the outside world had become so shitty that no one wanted to live in it. But we were young and naive and believed that our metaverse would rock. (Stephenson, of course, wasn’t being entirely original either. His vision of the metaverse owed a debt to Vernor Vinge’s 1981 True Names and to a series of William Gibson novels from the ’80s. Both of those authors owed a debt to Morton Heilig’s 1962 Sensorama machine, and on and on we go, back in time to Plato’s shadows on a cave wall.)
Daniel and I got a chance to actually build our metaverse about six months later, after we both joined Tripod as graphic designers and “webkeepers.” This was well before Tripod became a competitor to GeoCities, offering free webpages to all. (It was also before I accidentally invented pop-up ads. Sorry again about that.) Instead, we were a lifestyle magazine for recent graduates, providing smart, edgy, but practical content—“tools for life”—while hawking mutual funds to 20-somethings. When that business model didn’t take off (can’t imagine why), the half-dozen folks in the “tech cave” revived the metaverse idea.
And so, we skinned a MOO—that is, an online environment meant for multiplayer games. Our friend Nathan Kurz hacked Pavel Curtis’s LambdaMOO code to turn an “object oriented multiplayer dungeon”—a multiplayer, text-based game—into a web-based, graphical experience. Each room in the MOO, which would normally have only a text-based description, was associated with six JPEG images representing directions you could go (up, down, north, south, east, west), each of which was an image map with objects you could click on and interact with. Melanie Stowell, who had spent much of her undergraduate education logged on to various MOOs and MUDs (multiuser dungeons, another kind of virtual game space), wrote the code to make this work, and Daniel and I made hundreds of images to illustrate the space, which were dutifully inserted into webpages via Nate’s code.
We sold our CEO on the idea by telling him that the MOO could be a simulation of life in the big city postcollege, bringing onto the site new users who wanted to experience New York City while still in Ann Arbor or State College. And remember, this was 1995: The photos we used to represent this metaverse of ours were taken on chemical film! Which we then developed at a photo-processing lab! And then scanned on a flatbed scanner!
The MOO was really cool, in theory. Most people weren’t building HTML-enabled multiplayer spaces in 1995. It got us our first round of venture-capital funding, demonstrating to our investors that we weren’t just kids translating mutual-fund propaganda into HTML. We were technology innovators. We were building things no one had ever seen before.
But here’s the thing: The MOO was garbage. On a good day, I could give a demo that made it look smooth, slick, and fun to use. But our CEO couldn’t. And that was a problem. It wasn’t his fault. The MOO was buggy and quirky and demanded that you think of the world as a set of six-sided cubes made up of webpages. Our boss pulled the plug on the project, telling us, “I know it’s the future, but if I can’t use it, I can’t sell it to investors.”
I watched other metaverses rise and fall. An Icelandic firm, OZ Virtual, introduced a metaverse with 3-D avatars in sexy streetwear dancing on an infinite dance floor, which felt like the future for a few days. OZ Virtual used VRML, a format for specifying 3-D objects in an HTML-like language that was all the rage for a few months in 1996. Netscape supported it via a plug-in, and Blaxxun built a 3-D chat space. Don’t remember these moments of web history? Neither does the web, for the most part. Wikipedia’s thorough, but not comprehensive, timeline of virtual environments misses our MOO, the Icelandic dance club, and half a dozen other early virtual experiments. (By the way: “Blaxxun”? That’s another Stephenson reference, to Black Sun Systems, the fictional company that created Stephenson’s fictional metaverse. Very creative, guys.)
And then there was Second Life. When Linden Lab launched this metaverse in 2003, there was a brief burst of enthusiasm where otherwise serious entities, such as businesses and universities, bought and built out their own islands in Linden’s proprietary world. (Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, now the Berkman Klein Center, had its own island.) The learning curve to build objects in Second Life was steep, the universe was populated haphazardly, and the Second Life client demanded a very fast computer and a very patient user. But pioneers in the space saw beyond these limitations and envisioned a system that was so emotionally compelling that journalists and activists would be forced to engage with it to reach audiences.
I was invited to the Metaverse Roadmap Summit in 2006 to see some of these “serious” Second Life spaces. The one that finally caused me to lose my shit was Camp Darfur, an exhibit designed to help metaverse explorers understand what Sudanese refugees were experiencing when they were displaced from their homes. Of course, this was Sudan as understood through the eyes of well-meaning Bay Area techies, which meant it featured a roaring campfire surrounded by wooden tree stumps where you could sit and contemplate the horrors of genocide. Given that women routinely walked miles from barren, tree-free desert camps to collect firewood, risking assault and rape in the process, it seemed like the sort of detail you’d want to get right in simulating the refugee experience. But simulations are never just about what they hope to simulate, and the simulations in Second Life were at least as much about demonstrating that Second Life was a serious place where people did serious things as they were about educating viewers about the horrors of ethnic cleansing. It was horrifying.
Second Life also needed rebranding. Its user base stabilized around 1 million monthly users, and a significant percentage of those users visited the metaverse to experience its thriving kink scene. Digital bondage gear is a lot cheaper than leather and metal, and cybersex among consenting adults is safer than intercourse. Virtual sex spaces make sex more accessible for people for whom shyness or physical difference could make going to a club or party impossible in real life—they are a genuinely useful service. But they are not a replacement for the “flat” internet that the Berkman Center and other institutions thought they were investing in at the time.
So, after watching metaverses spring up and crumble for 27 years, and after building one myself, I feel fairly well equipped to offer context for what Mark Zuckerberg is trying to do with his firm’s pivot to “Meta.” In his heavily produced keynote video for Facebook Reality Labs, Zuckerberg starts by acknowledging that this is a bizarre time for the company to be launching a new product line—Facebook is under more scrutiny than ever for its ill effects on individuals and societies, and for the company’s utter unwillingness to address these issues.
But why bother with that mess? Or, as Zuckerberg put it: “Now, I know that some people will say that this isn’t a time to focus on the future. And I want to acknowledge that there are important issues to work on in the present. There always will be. So for many people, I’m just not sure there ever will be a good time to focus on the future.” Allow me to translate: Fuck you, haters.
Let’s be frank about this: Facebook’s metaverse sucks. From the first images in which legless torsos sit around a conference room, staring at a Zoom-like videoconferencing screen, to Zuckerberg’s tour of his virtual closet, filled with identical black outfits (see, he’s got a sense of humor!), Zuck’s metaverse looks pretty much like we imagined one would look like in 1994. Look, I’m playing cards with my friends and we’re in zero gravity! And one of my friends is a robot! You could do this in Second Life 10 years ago, and in somewhat angular vectors in VRML 20 years ago.
The graphics are a little better—though frankly, not that much better. The blocky avatars of Horizon Workrooms are so cartoonish because animating complex sets of polygons is pretty hard when they can all move in any given direction at any given time. Your video games look marvelous in part because we can predict that the terrain is (roughly) going to stay on the ground and that your character is going to take (roughly) predictable paths through the scenery. But in an open, user-created metaverse, a lot of inefficient polygons are flying around, which is why dance parties in Second Life suffered from terrible frame rates. (Not to mention the orgies.)
The metaverse Zuckerberg shows off in his video doesn’t have to solve those problems. He’s promising future technologies that are five to 10 years off. But it still looks like junk. The fire in his fireplace is a roughly rendered glow. His superhero secret lair looks out over a paradise island that’s almost entirely static. There’s the nominal motion of waves, but none of the foliage moves. It’s tropical wallpaper pasted to virtual windows. The sun is setting behind Zuckerberg’s left shoulder, but he’s being lit from the right front. Even with a bajillion dollars to invest in a video to relaunch and rename his company, Zuckerberg’s team is showing just how difficult it is to create a visually believable virtual world.
But that’s not the problem with Zuckerberg’s metaverse. The problem is that it’s boring. The futures it imagines have been imagined a thousand times before, and usually better. Two old men chat over a chessboard, one in Barcelona, one in New York, much as they did on Minitel in the 1980s. There’s virtual Ping-Pong and surfing, you know, like on a Wii. You can watch David Attenborough nature documentaries, like you do on Netflix. You can videoconference with your workmates … you know, like you do every single day.
Zuckerberg isn’t building the metaverse because he has a remarkable new vision of how things could be. There’s not an original thought in his video, including the business model. Thirty-eight minutes in, Zuckerberg gets serious, talking about how humbling the past few years have been for him and his business. Remember, he’s not humbled by the problem of Russian disinformation, or the spread of anti-vax misinformation, or the challenge of how Instagram affects teen body image. No, he’s humbled by how hard it is to fight against Apple and Google.
Faced with the question of whether Facebook’s core products are eroding the foundations of a democratic society, Zuckerberg takes on a more pressing problem: Apple’s 30 percent cut on digital goods sold in its App Store. Never fear, though: With a Facebook ecosystem, Facebook developer tools, and Facebook marketplaces, the custom skin you buy in one video game will be wearable in another video game, just like Mark’s black T-shirt. Just as long as that video game is in Facebook’s metaverse. (Meta’s metaverse? Meta’s verse?) And if you want Mark’s actual digital shirt, it will almost certainly be available as an NFT, which the launch video promises will be supported. Did I mention how dystopian this all is?
Facebook can claim originality in at least one thing. Its combination of scale and irresponsibility has unleashed a set of diverse and fascinating sociopolitical challenges that it will take lawmakers, scholars, and activists at least a generation to fix. If Facebook has learned anything from 17 years of avoiding mediating those conflicts, it’s not apparent from the vision for the metaverse, where the power of human connection is celebrated as uncritically as it was before Macedonian fake-news brokers worked to sway the 2016 election.
How will a company that can block only 6 percent of Arabic-language hate content deal with dangerous speech when it’s worn on an avatar’s T-shirt or revealed at the end of a virtual fireworks display? Add monetization to the problems of content moderation—who gets to make money off a digital hate-speech T-shirt?—and Facebook’s oversight board is going to be very, very busy.
Neal Stephenson’s metaverse has been a lasting creation because it’s fictional. It doesn’t have to solve all the intricate problems of content moderation and extremism and interpersonal interaction to raise questions about what virtual worlds can give us and what our real world lacks. Today’s metaverse creators are missing the point, just like I missed the point back at Ted’s Fish Fry in 1994. The metaverse isn’t about building perfect virtual escape hatches—it’s about holding a mirror to our own broken, shared world. Facebook’s promised metaverse is about distracting us from the world it’s helped break.