On 28 October 2021, social media users around the globe scratched their heads at the sight of a simple message: Welcome to Meta.
Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook would be splitting into two branches: one focusing on Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, and the other on the development of the metaverse. The company called Facebook would now be called Meta.
"I've been thinking a lot about our identity as we begin this next chapter. Facebook is one of the most used products in the history of the world," Zuckerberg said. "It is an iconic social media brand, but increasingly it just doesn't encompass everything that we do.”
So what exactly were we being welcomed to? What is the metaverse? And what does Facebook – er, Meta – do now?
Nineties culture has been making a comeback in the modern day. Unsurprisingly, the term “metaverse” also made its first appearance in this iconic decade, debuting in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 sci-fi novel Snow Crash. In this novel, the metaverse is the virtual reality successor of the internet, allowing users to explore online worlds and interact in virtual spaces using personalised, lifelike avatars.
Much like Stephenson’s novel, the metaverse includes virtual spaces where users in different physical spaces can interact using virtual reality – as well as augmented reality technology. An example is Horizon Workrooms, which allows users in different parts of the world to connect in a virtual office space and interact much like they would in a physical office space. In the near future, users can also look forward to replacing their physical hardware with virtual reality headsets, as VR technology evolves.
The possibilities of the metaverse are endless, and will allow users to spend time with friends, attend virtual concerts, try on clothing, shop, create and explore – all within a virtual world.
Don’t get too excited though, the metaverse is not a single company product and the features mentioned earlier will, according to Meta, most likely only be part of it in 10 to 15 years time.
Although the timeline of most of the metaverse products is a bit of a buzzkill, it’s important to note that Meta is not rushing the metaverse and its products but rather using this time to “ask the difficult questions about how they should be built”.
Meta will be working with government, industry and academia experts to iron out issues and debate opportunities in the metaverse. One of the key areas of success Meta is focusing on is how to ensure interoperability so different companies can work together across services. Meta is also planning on involving human and civil rights communities to ensure that the metaverse and its products are designed inclusively in a way that’s accessible and empowering. Facebook’s reputation has, however, suffered a blow and user privacy concerns will definitely need to be addressed during the development of the metaverse.
Meta also announced that they will be launching the XR Programs and Research Fund, which will finance programs and external research dedicated towards metaverse development. This two-year, US$50 million investment will also finance Meta’s collaboration with various industry partners, groups and institutions to help facilitate their effort of building the metaverse responsibly.
The metaverse marks the next phase in social media’s evolution, but at this point in time, the “what is” is not nearly as exciting as the “what might be”. We look forward to the exciting opportunities the metaverse will bring about. Who knows, in 10 years time you might be reading this very blog post while sipping your coffee in a virtual coffee shop.