Even before the metaverse fully arrives, it’s stirring controversy. Some skeptics share dystopian fears, claiming that it will allow us to hide behind our avatars and spew social media-style venom, or bludgeon us with propaganda. Will it be the end of humanity as we know it, as people remain closeted in their residence, eschewing in-person interaction, while their social skills atrophy?
While all of that is possible, it doesn’t need to be the hardwired outcome of a world where the metaverse exists. It will depend on how the metaverse is operationalized and “executed” and what it replaces. If we divide our waking hours into three buckets—personal time, in-person contact, the internet (including social media interaction)—where will the metaverse steal market share? It will likely play in all three buckets, but the proportion of where we source our metaverse time will be a key factor in determining if the metaverse can be a positive force in building relationships.
If the metaverse largely becomes a substitute for in-person contact, it could degrade personal relationships. From the nuance of reading non-verbal cues to the lack of eye contact, the metaverse will be an imperfect substitute for face-to-face socializing. However, when the expense and time cost of travel are obstacles, it can be a far better alternative to a phone call or Zoom. One potentially positive use case includes using the metaverse as a means of access. Many will never have the opportunity to physically visit the great museums of the world. For them, a metaverse-style tour of the Louvre in Paris may be the only way they can experience it.
Another potentially positive use case is as a substitute for social media. If a portion of Twitter blurts, behind the veil of an unaccountable username, shifted to a conversation in the metaverse, we could create more space for nuance and opportunities to bridge divides, rather than reinforce divisions. In a metaverse where transparency of identity exists, people are likely to feel more accountable for what they say and how they say it, hence drawing others into the conversation. This could promote empathy and mutual understanding, with less focus on the binary of being “right” or “wrong”. Also, there is a tendency to not be present in a social media conversation, meaning we come and go as we want, breaking continuity and inhibiting us from deepening our understanding of issues and of each other. The metaverse is synchronous and immersive, where someone may be more likely to have a continuous give-and-take conversation, which can help foster mutual respect and an appreciation of alternative viewpoints.
Beyond the world of social media, the metaverse offers limitless opportunities. Immersive experiences will change the way in which people learn languages, engage with historical events, visit cities, and conduct scientific experiments. NFTs are already creating communities of artists who commercialize their work without intermediaries, empowering creators across borders. Decentralized Autonomous Organizations (or DAOs) will allow people to manage hitherto inaccessible resources collectively. In short, from education to tourism to art, the metaverse has the potential to democratize access to knowledge, assets, and experiences.
Solely as a substitute for in-person contact, the metaverse will fail us as a society. But when used as the next generation of social media, as a tool to personalize and extend dialogue, or as a way to create access to the world’s unique experiences, we have much to gain.