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The metaverse and the issue with audience engagement

The metaverse, it’s been a trendy topic for at least 1-2 years (if not more), and I know I’m to the party. But recently I’ve felt an increasing need to discuss it. For the most part, my opinion on the general discussion of the metaverse is that it is sheer bullshit.

And this opinion isn’t because I don’t believe in it or that it won’t be worth billions (or trillions if you look at some ‘experts’ opinions). But rather than too many are jumping on a hype train to something that hasn’t been defined yet, isn’t understood well and has a different version depending on who you speak to or listen to.

I do believe in the metaverse concept, and I love the idea of the pervading virtual space that interconnects everything online. I’m just not sure we can use the term yet to discuss it in that way. For example, the statement from this CNBC article that the interviewer met with Mark Zuckerberg in the ‘metaverse’ makes it sound like it’s already there. This is of course PR and advertising for Zuckerberg’s Meta, but the ‘space’ likely is a made-for-purpose virtual environment (never stated in the article) is something none of us will be able to visit. I would say it’s likely that they met in the Meta-verse.

Unfortunately, though, the metaverse, depending on who you read or listen to, has either always been here, is being built or is yet to come. Meta’s point of view is that it is being built and that they are the ones doing it. And that it will somehow reflect the persistent space seen in the origin of the word’s story, in Snow Crash or the Oasis from Ready Player One. Though seeing as Meta has stated that they are looking into the metaverse for advertising reasons (their main revenue stream), we should likely be worried that the metaverse may turn into the space that the antagonist of Ready Player One envisions. A virtual space where upwards of 80% of the screen is covered in advertising space without inducing a seizure in the user. But I’m hopefully wrong.

Naturally, these are dystopian views of these worlds. There’s a reason that the stories take place in these horrible realities the characters in them want to escape. As many others have also stated, I do hope that this isn’t the reality that we are heading to. Hopefully, the metaverse is a virtual space that adds to our physical space and enhances and augments what we have already. But to do these various aspects, certain things need to be addressed when it comes to engaging audiences in such a ‘utopian’ world.

A vision of the metaverse

Being a gamer for a few decades, and having played MMOs such as World of Warcraft, and Eve Online and tried my hand at Fortnite, I would like to say that I’ve already been living in the metaverse, or at least a metaverse, for quite some time. Unfortunately, none of these is connected, so the experience is always tied to those games. And the concept is somehow tied to gaming in general.

When I consider what the metaverse could be, I’m reminded of an anime show called Sword Art Online, I won’t go into too much detail around the plot, but in the end, sees the protagonist win and receive the source code to the MMORPG that becomes something called the Seed. The Seed in essence allows for an infinite number of game worlds to be built that are all interconnected. Players can seamlessly transfer their characters (avatars, goods, content, etc.) from one gaming world/space to another without issue. The visuals of their goods may change, but the value and use haven’t, or are simply inactive in that world, but not lost. This is what I imagined blockchain could and would be. Having such a system of equivalencies and interconnectedness would probably also alleviate the issue of the inherent non-value found with NFTs.

For now, the closest thing that resembles the system of the seed is the gaming environment known as Roblox. This game environment is the nearest candidate at the moment in terms of a central decentralised virtual space, where a single game ‘engine’ allows for multiple versions of wildly different worlds and experiences.

Somewhere between Roblox and the blockchain technology at large, exists the concept of truly decentralised information that can be easily transferred. But it appears to still be a while away. Much of it is likely marred by the fact that there isn’t yet a truly secure online (crypto-) currency that can be used as a universal form of payment for all of these digital goods. Or at the very least a functioning and robust economic system that allows for currency exchanges and goods sales and transfers. Perhaps Eve Online’s in-house economist team has a view on this?

The metaverse as a place

The metaverse is for many a place, a locus, where we can gather, interact, communicate and collaborate. This isn’t new, spaces in games have provided such a place for at least two decades. Major cities and auction houses in World of Warcraft were such places, I have spent many hours in them. Jane McGonigal also mentioned this and its inherent power and value in her Ted Talks over a decade ago.

And talking of such places, we cannot forget Second Life and what is offered and promised as a metaversal space. Though its eventual decline and change into what it is now is likely an example of the issues posed by a virtual space, our relationship with it and the technology behind it.

All these examples also underline the issue and the inherent bullshit of the metaverse, which is: is it a pervasive persistent parallel virtual world to our own where we can all meet and interact or is it a collection of isolated pocket universes that spread out across the internet, and the only connection is the abstract concept that we have created by talking about? The issue is interoperability.

I fear that it is likely the latter. But this isn’t the only problem that the metaverse faces as a location for interaction. What happens now in our post-pandemic world with ever-increasing costs? The metaverse became very trendy during lockdown when many of us had a lot of time and due to reduced expenditure, a bit more spending capital. But what now? Will it slow down or stall now that so many people are essentially re-discovering the outside world? What happens to all those virtual metaverse store-fronts and offices now that people want to see each other face to face? We’ll likely have to wait and see.

At the moment though, the metaverse feels ‘lame’, to use both its normal meaning and the colloquial meaning. So far what I’ve seen from most is that their version of the metaverse is simply a virtual version of the physical world, isn’t that somewhat boring? It feels the same as a vegetarian steak, for some reason despite choosing to be vegetarian you still want steak. Unfortunately, it’ll never smell, taste, feel or be real steak, and will therefore likely not be a worthwhile experience. Much like the metaverse will never smell, taste, feel or be real, so why not make it be something else? It shouldn’t replace what is there with a lesser facsimile, it should enhance or support, like a tasty roasted cauliflower and pasta with chilli flakes dish (because there are amazing vegetarian dishes out there).

The metaverse & audience engagement

For the metaverse to work as a tool, location, and concept to increase audience engagement with your brand and organisation, it will need to be an integrated experience. And not only within its own space but also with reality and the physical world. It cannot and should not be separated from the outside world, nor should it be an alternative to it, an escapist realm like in the dystopia novels that gave it its name.

It also shouldn’t be a place where fun things become a grind. And by this, I mean that there is an inherent gamification element to creating working environments in the metaverse, which I do support. We should have the opportunity to have more engaging work environments. Though they shouldn’t be turned into games where people become burned out from the amount of ‘enjoyment’ available. And this isn’t even touching upon those professions that will be left out in the cold in the desert of the real, such as medical professions, city waste collection and so on.

The metaverse concept shouldn’t replace reality. It should offer a virtual experience that enhances, augments and enriches reality. That statement alone already references the fact that the metaverse should be in VR, AR, MR and XR.

My point isn’t so much about how to use the metaverse to improve audience engagement, but the issue that appears when its current incarnation and what many organisations are promoting. The issue that many big tech companies seem to pass over when promoting all their immersive metaverse worlds is that it’s pretty difficult for their audiences to remain in these worlds if they are homeless, starving and/or dead. The novels that the metaverse are based on, are dystopian for a reason and yet also ignore where people find the time to pay for and survive to escape their dystopian worlds.

It would appear that many companies have simply ignored the first few layers of Maslow’s hierarchy. Which I know many decry when discussing engagement processes. But in this case, it’s true.

But to briefly touch upon how the metaverse can improve audience engagement, its very nature of being an inherently immersive experience, visually, and audially means that it will engage people at a much deeper level. This is also another reason it shouldn’t be a clone of the real world. If I enter the metaverse I want to see and experience things that wouldn’t be possible in reality. To illustrate this I’m reminded of a sketch from the comedian Dara Ó Briain, where he’s playing GTA to unwind on his day off and realises he’s in his underwear at home, stuck in traffic…Perhaps not the metaversal experience he was hoping for.

Final thoughts

As some final thoughts in this lengthy discourse, be wary of any idiotic statements that say when the metaverse will arrive or when it will be defined. Too many articles I’ve come across with forecasters of the future have statements like: experts say in 2040 the metaverse will be a more defined place. This statement is neither correct nor incorrect. In all honesty, I hope it’ll be more defined by then, 20 years will have passed, but this statement also doesn’t give us anything. It is essentially the same as me saying that by 2050 the world will have progressed noticeably. These statements are horoscope readings at best.

I do hope that the metaverse becomes a reality, I would love it. But there are still a lot of obstacles in the way that we need to overcome. These obstacles are cooperation and interoperability, we’re all racing to create our version of the metaverse, too few are working together to build it together, we’d rather be first and get the praise, fame and fortune. But without cooperation, the interoperability that would give rise to a single defined protocol for collaboration and connection, the metaverse is likely to just be the metaplace.

A good analogy for the various companies trying to make (their own) metaverse is likely the streaming provider space at the moment. People only have so much time and money, and having 20+ streaming services (not mention all the TV channels and other ancillary streaming options) just isn’t viable. Inevitably an engagement gap will appear leading to engagement alienation because there is no cooperation or interoperability.

And the last obstacle, which concerns us as a planet, and we could all benefit from, is the issue of power. To run a virtual space to the size of the metaverse, we would need a ubiquitous and sustainable power source that delivers energy in the range of Gigawatts (e.g. a fusion reactor). Perhaps our drive to engage everyone in a mixed reality space, will also be the thing that saves us and the planet?

As a final point, the player that is likely to win the metaverse will be a company that for obvious reasons has the money to do it. But also has the workforce to do it and most importantly has a compelling narrative, both as a brand and company but also for the story that’ll be woven into the metaverse. Because, as I stated before, the metaverse shouldn’t be a replica of our world, but something more, that builds on top of ours, enhances it, and where we can seamlessly travel between. My money at the moment is on the same company that Matthew Ball believes will win, and that is likely to be Disney.

I hope that this piece has given you some food for thought and helped improve your own methods or at least offered a different viewpoint to consider.

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