What in the World is the Metaverse?

November 14, 2021

Mark Zuckerberg announced in a video featured at the Facebook Connect 2021 augmented and virtual reality conference at the end of October that Facebook’s parent company, Facebook, Inc., would be changing its name to Meta Platforms, Inc.  The video contained an explanation and demonstration of Zuckerberg and Meta’s ambitions for the “metaverse.”  It also featured some self-deprecating jokes by Zuckerberg, such as displaying a bottle of Sweet Baby Ray’s barbecue sauce on a bookshelf, appearing to pay homage to an odd livestream from 2016 in which Zuckerberg was “smoking some meats” in his backyard. 

The name change is meant to signify the company’s commitment to and ambitions for building out the proverbial metaverse.  Meta plans to invest “many billions of dollars” in the coming years building out the metaverse with Zuckerberg envisioning elements of it becoming mainstream in “five to ten years.”  “Today we are seen as a social media company, but, in our DNA, we are a company that builds technology to connect people and the metaverse is the next frontier just like social networking was when we got started,” says Zuckerberg.  While the announcement did not come as a surprise, it begs the question: what in the world is the metaverse?

The metaverse is loosely defined as an extensive online world where people can interact, work, shop, attend classes, and do pretty much anything via digital avatars.  These digital avatars are similar to a profile picture on a social media site, but “instead of a static image there will be living, 3-D representations of you,” says Zuckerberg.  The idea is that someone will be able to strap on a virtual headset, such as one made by Oculus (owned by Facebook), and enter a virtual environment where the possibilities are seemingly endless.  “You will be able to teleport instantly as a hologram to be at the office without a commute, at a concert with friends, or in your parent’s living room to catch up,” Zuckerberg said in a Founder’s Letter posted online.

Some metaverse-like experiences already exist.  For instance, Roblox Corp. and Epic Games Inc.’s “Fortnite” have hosted virtual concerts and other metaverse-like experiences.  Moreover, the video game “The Sims,” launched in 2000, where people control avatars in a virtual world, can be said to be an early iteration of the metaverse.  In fact, experts say that the gateway to the metaverse will be through further developing videogame platforms that are already developed.  The difference between these early versions of the metaverse and the future Zuckerberg sees, however, is total 3-D immersion with the virtual world.

While Zuckerberg makes the metaverse out to be all sunshine and rainbows, this announcement comes on the heels of a series of scandals that have rocked his company.  Most recently, Frances Haugen, a whistleblower and former data scientist at Facebook, released a trove of documents to news outlets, lawmakers, and regulators.  These documents showed that the company is aware of the harms its apps and services cause, negatively impacting children and sowing discord, but has ignored these findings in pursuit of breakneck growth and “astronomical profits.”  As such, with Meta’s seeming inability to control the rippling effects of its current social offerings, there is concern about the harms that its foray into the metaverse will cause.  The concerns surrounding the metaverse are manifold but center around security, privacy, and the mental and physical health of users.

Deepfakes, hacked avatars, and manipulated objects are some obvious types of malicious behavior that could impact a user’s experience in the metaverse.  Deepfakes are not a new phenomenon stemming from the metaverse, but they have become more sophisticated recently.  Combining the immersive experience of the metaverse with deepfakes that appear more real than ever could make dissemination of misinformation easier and more effective. Accessing the metaverse will result in collection of a considerable amount of biometric data as well.  Instead of tracking clicks on a webpage, data will be collected on a user’s environment, physical movements (including where a user goes and how long they stay), eye movement, and the user’s physiological response to an experience such as an increase in the user’s heart rate.  Accordingly, new types of personal and medical information for millions (potentially billions) of people will become accessible.  Moreover, brain-computer interfaces will soon be available as a method of accessing the metaverse.  These devices track brain wave patterns and deduce thought processes through machine learning, in other words, creating a direct link to someone’s brain.  There is no need to stretch the imagination to see the potential for abuse with the access to that type of data.

By ignoring the risks the sophisticated technology of the metaverse brings along and ignoring the lessons of social media’s first iteration, we risk turning progress into dystopia.

Lastly, and most obviously, the potential for adverse mental health effects is a clear concern with the metaverse.  If people are able to become addicted to social media today through looking at screens, imagine what a virtual world allowing for total immersion could do.  People could easily come to prefer virtual life and ignore their real-life needs.  It is challenging to predict the impact that a blurring of the virtual world and the real world would have on people, especially minors.

Unfortunately, we have learned the hard way the negative impacts that new social technologies can have.  But Meta and other tech companies have set their sights on developing the metaverse.  As such, we need to proactively address safety, privacy, and ethics issues in the metaverse.  By ignoring the risks the sophisticated technology of the metaverse brings along and ignoring the lessons of social media’s first iteration, we risk turning progress into dystopia.

Jacob M. Perrone

Jacob attended the University of Delaware for college and majored in Economics and Finance.  Before attending law school, he worked in finance for three years.  After law school, he plans to pursue a career in corporate law.