Do normal people need to know or care about "the metaverse"?
An exclusive Read Max report
Last week, Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook would be changing its name to "Meta." The new name coincides with a new mission: "Meta’s focus will be to bring the metaverse to life," claim the press materials. Almost immediately, people whose personal and professional identities are intimately bound up with newsmedia consumption sprung into action, producing reams of opinion, prediction, explanation, and other ideas about "the metaverse." Alas, the highly ritualized commotion of the content ecosystem did not answer the most important question for the normal people who are ostensibly its audience: do normal people need to know, care, or form opinions about "the metaverse," whatever it might be?
Read Max, the only Substack newsletter geared toward normal people who like to read ~10,000 words on Dune instead of freaks who want to read about Facebook's long-term business strategy or whatever, has produced a new report regarding "the metaverse," designed to help people determine how they want to use their dwindling brain power and time on the planet.
A brief note: Read Max is an independent newsletter devoted to helping normal people critically assess what sucks about the future. If you find this email helpful, please share it with friends, and consider subscribing!
Do I need to know about "the metaverse"?
Read Max is issuing a "don't worry about it" rating for the metaverse. With some exceptions, most normal readers do not need to know, care, or form opinions about "the metaverse." Be aware that we are still on thinkpiece advisory for "the metaverse," so it is possible you might encounter a newsletter or Medium piece about "the metaverse." In such an event, Read Max recommends readers avoid discourse concerning "the metaverse" and devote the brain power they might have spent thinking about the "the metaverse" to reading a good book, such as François X. Fauvelle's The Golden Rhinoceros, a recently translated history of medieval Africa told through the close examination of historical documents and archeological finds.
Will I ever need to know about "the metaverse"?
The Read Max rating reflects current conditions and is not a forecast. It may be the case that at some point in the future normal people will need to know and worry about "the metaverse," and possibly even buy "avatars" inside of it in order to practice important contemporary social and cultural rituals like "learning about open enrollment" and "sex parties." Read Max will upgrade its rating to "yeah, you should probably read an explainer about it" if and when our research suggests normal people should begin to worry about "the metaverse."
Why do I not need to know or care about "the metaverse"?
Read Max's proprietary research suggests that "the metaverse" is not really even a "thing" that one might know or care about, so much as it is a buzzword used to refer vaguely to a bunch of businesses, platforms, and technologies that might someday work together in some not particularly well-defined way.
To wit: Most of the time, "the metaverse" means what was called, for about three decades, virtual reality, i.e., a networked, computer-generated world you and others enter through some kind of head-mounted hardware. This is the Facebook "metaverse": using goggles made by Facebook subsidiary Oculus, you enter the Facebook-hosted V.R. metaverse, where you can meet your friends at a V.R. bar, play V.R. board games, go to V.R. meetings for your V.R. job, get summoned into a V.R. conference room to get V.R. furloughed by your V.R. boss and a V.R. human-resources representatives.
Normal readers probably already have their own feelings about the idea of a life in which virtual reality plays a prominent role; Read Max reminds them that they do not need to change those feelings just because it has a new name. (Indeed, that Facebook is so eager to rebrand "virtual reality" as "the metaverse" suggests that the company knows that many people have made their minds up about the role immersive V.R. technology should play in their lives.)
Sometimes "the metaverse" is taken to mean not V.R. but A.R., or "augmented reality": generally, "wearable" technologies like Google Glass or Airpods that allow you to access the internet without needing to look at a separate screen. It is not clear to Read Max why this is a "metaverse" and not just "the internet, on your glasses and/or earbuds," but perhaps that is why Read Max is not making seven figures as a CMO.
"The metaverse" is not used only to refer to V.R. and A.R., however. In certain cases "the metaverse" means what used to be called MMOs, or massively multiplayer online games: Games like World of Warcraft, Second Life, The Sims Online, and their descendents. The wildly popular game environments Roblox and Fortnite, in which teenagers and adolescents gather in virtual space to abuse each other, spend money on virtual costumes, and sometimes play games, are often referred to in articles about "the metaverse."
This version of "the metaverse" is the one that is the most fully realized and successful (Fortnite parent company Epic made $9 billion in 2018 and 2019), and some readers, including parents, who likely already have had aspects of Roblox explained to them in detail on the way to school, may find these games and attendant viral dances to be of interest. (Read Max's official position is that normal people do not need to know about Fortnite, though we acknowledge that some memes may be easier to understand if you do.)
Finally, "the metaverse" is also sometimes used to describe some vague future in which blockchain technology and especially NFTs play a prominent role, perhaps as a means of allowing you, and you alone, to own the leather gimp avatar you wear to your job as an insurance claims adjuster in the metaverse offices of Liberty Mutual. Or perhaps NFTs are simply said to have a role in the future of "the metaverse" because it is in the best interests of people with large NFT portfolios to suggest frequently that NFTs have some application or function beyond speculation.
The bottom line for our research is that, while you can certainly imagine a future in which all of these technologies intersect in a new, comprehensive way that deserves the name of "metaverse" — V.R. and A.R. hardware being used to access MMO platforms in which you can "own" property and objects — that has not happened yet, and may never happen, and even if it does happen the real appeal of it for normal people is hard to assess, and even if it somehow becomes world-transformingly popular, you will have plenty of time to figure it out later. For now, they are just things that you already knew existed, being called "the metaverse" by people who are seeking to make their companies or products seem more futuristic and cooler. Therefore: Don't worry about it.
What are the risks of not worrying about "the metaverse"?
Certain risks inhere in not learning, caring, thinking, or worrying about about "the metaverse":
Your boss may ask you "what is our metaverse strategy?" Bosses and managers are highly susceptible to buzzwords. Failing to know or care about "the metaverse" may lead to you embarrassing yourself in front of your boss, or, worse, finding yourself obligated to come up with a "metaverse strategy."
You may fail to get jokes about "the metaverse." Jokes made on Twitter, late-night talk shows, or in conversation may sail directly over your head.
Mark Zuckerberg may actually build a "metaverse" that becomes a layer of reality in which you have no choice but to participate. While "the metaverse" as Facebook portrays it seems like a hard sell, Zuckerberg's company has a staggering amount of money and extensive development resources, which may provide him with the ability to will "the metaverse" into existence despite widespread apathy. (Remember: Nobody asked for the internet. The military-industrial complex just went ahead and built it.) There is a chance that you may wake up one day in the future, jack in to your Oculus so you can make the 9 a.m. sales projection meeting, and wish you'd spent more time reading about "the metaverse" so that you could have bought property in it early and lived off of passive metaverse income.
Please read these risks carefully. Read Max can make no guarantees regarding "the metaverse."