The concept of the “metaverse” first came from the 1992 sci-fi novel Snow Crash as a place that people flee to escape a dangerous corporation-dominated world. It has since come to refer to a range of virtual experiences that have gained popularity during the pandemic – including video games such as Fortnite, non-fungible tokens or even online meetings and events.
But in recent weeks the term has gained new traction – and concern over its potential ethical and societal implications – after Mark Zuckerberg said that in five years, Facebook would be a “metaverse company” and declared it the “successor to the mobile internet”.
Sharing his vision of what it might look like, the founder and controlling shareholder of the $1tn (£750bn) company described an online world where people wearing VR headsets – Facebook also owns Oculus, the virtual-reality platform – would not just view content but be inside it. It would be an online space built by companies, creators and developers in which people could also live their lives – virtually going to performances and even work.
In Washington, Facebook’s political push to promote the metaverse is reportedly already in full flow. Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, and Nick Clegg, its vice-president for global affairs and communications, are leading the lobbying campaign. On Monday, Clegg is set to lay out the company’s plans for how the metaverse could reshape society in a talk entitled Journey to the Metaverse.
According to the Washington Post the company is in conversation with thinktanks about metaverse standards and protocols – a move that some observers say allows the company to shift discussion away from issues such as the antitrust lawsuit filed by the Federal Trade Commission last year.
But experts fear that with regulation still struggling to catch up with the impact of the first wave of social media, the metaverse is likely to be a way for companies like Facebook to capture and profit from even more data. They also warn that more foresight and government protections are needed to counter the risk of the space, and people’s lives, being overrun by big tech.