At the end of October 2021, Facebook renamed itself Meta, emphasizing the company's focus on the Metaverse1. At the latest since this announcement, the term Metaverse has been on everyone's lips. But what exactly is a metaverse?
The term goes back to the novel "Snow Crash" by Neal Stephenson, published in 1992. In it, the author outlines a global virtual reality in which people move and interact as avatars. Unlike computer games, there are no set goals; rather, the metaverse is an alternate reality to the physical world2. Pushed by poverty, violence, and extreme social inequality in the physical world, people flee to the Metaverse. States are almost completely irrelevant and private companies take over social order functions4. Some may be reminded of Ready Player One by Ernest Cline or its film adaptation by Steven Spielberg. It is therefore all the more astonishing that this term has now become established, even though the novel describes a dystopian worldview.
But what exactly is the metaverse? Regarding this question, people often refer to the essay "The Metaverse: What It Is, Where to Find it, and Who Will Build It" by investor Mathew Ball2. In this text, the author discusses seven basic characteristics of a metaverse2, 4:
- The metaverse is persistent. It does not terminate, pause, or reset; it persists indefinitely.
- It is synchronous and live. Even though there will be timed events such as concerts, the Metaverse is another reality that occurs in real time.
- There is no limit to the number of simultaneous users. At the same time it gives users an individual feeling of presence. Each person can be part of the metaverse and participate in events/places/activities together with individual action capability simultaneously.
- It will have a fully functional economy. Individuals and businesses will be able to buy, create, own, invest, sell and be compensated for work.
- The Metaverse will be an experience that encompasses the physical world as well as the digital. There will be different platforms that provide open but also closed environments in the Metaverse. For example, I could use Euros to buy a property in Virtual Space or, conversely, book a doctor's appointment in Virtual Space and then go there in the physical world. Pokemon Go-style mixtures between the virtual and physical worlds will also be part of the Metaverse.
- It will offer unprecedented data interoperabilityi): Content, digital objects and more can be taken from one platform to the next. For example, the building constructed in Minecraft could be taken and placed directly into Horzion Worlds, Fortnite, or our farvel.space.
- The metaverse will be filled with content and experiences created and operated by a variety of diverse contributors. Some may be independent individuals, others informally organized groups, or even commercially operating companies.
Therefore the Metaverse is not an online computer game, hardware, or an online experience, it is rather an alternate reality. There will not be one platform that is the Metaverse - just as, for example, Google or Facebook are not the Internet.4.
It is now clear from these points that there is unlikely to be a fixed point in time when the Metaverse is "available." Platforms such as Horizon Worlds, Fortnite, and Mozilla Hubs provide rudiments of a metaverse, but have by no means arrived there. Mathew Ball suggests that the emergence of the metaverse will be an ongoing process, which will emerge through the collaboration of different platforms, groupings, and technologies involving data interoperability4.
But what now of Facebook, uh meta?
As indicated at the beginning, Meta is fully committed to the metaverse. To that end, their Horizon Worlds platform has been in development for several years. Together with the other services – Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp – Meta can access a large number of users and link the individual services with each other. So it's conceivable that I, as a user, could jump from the Facebook group to a Meetup in Horizon Worlds, while still receiving a WhatsApp message and answering it from Virtual Space.
Actually sounds quite nice, doesn't it? Yes and no. Meta hasn't exactly shone in its dealings with users lately. As whistleblower Frances Haugen reports, the company is in a constant conflict of interest between public safety and its own profits. These are mostly resolved in favor of profits, she said. Among other things, Meta has long known about the very negative psychological effects of Instagram on teenagers, human trafficking or the search for hitmen by Mexican drug cartels on its platforms5. If you want to get an overview of Meta's transgressions, you can check out ZDF Magazin Royale's site www.enteignetfacebook.global .
One thing is clear: Meta will play an important role in the emerging metaverse simply because of the large number of users of its platforms. Judging by the company's actions so far, Meta will try to concentrate as much of the Metaverse as possible on itself and thus centralize it. In this aspect, the "Snow Crash" dystopia, where the Metaverse is common property and managed by a public good-oriented organization, is even more desirable than Meta's idea of a Metaverse 6.
The reasons for Meta's interest in the Metaverse are obvious: to scale its current business model many times over with data and advertising. Anyone who has ever put on VR glasses knows how much sensor technology is in this hardware. Not only is motion data tracked, many glasses also have cameras to analyze the environment and prevent collisions with the physical world. From movements, activities and behavior in virtual space to the recording of one's own home, all this data and more is captured by VR glasses. So there is enormous potential here to place targeted advertising and resell data. Furthermore, virtual and physical products can also be advertised and demonstrated very advantageously in virtual space. In addition to selling products, a "pay-via-meta" payment system could be very profitable.
The Alternative Mozilla Hubs
The counterpart to Meta Horizon Worlds is Mozilla Hubs. Mozilla is a non-profit organization best known for its Firefox web browser. Although both platforms may look similar at first glance, they are significantly different. Mozilla Hub's code is publicly available under an Open Source license. The license is so permissive that other parties are allowed to use the code even for commercial purposes. Mozilla even encourages third parties to use the code for their own purposes. In fact, we ourselves, farvel, build our app on top of Mozilla Hub's code and contribute significantly to this new reality with our developments. Privacy and data protection have been built into Mozilla Hubs from the start. For example, for an account, only the email address is stored in the database, the account itself is optional. The platform is based on web standards and can be easily accessed via web browsers or VR devices. This way, Mozilla enables easy access to hubs and supports a variety of end devices. Functionally, the platform probably can't keep up with Horizon Worlds, but that's exactly why the code is public. Third parties, like farvel, can take the basic Mozilla Hubs framework and build their own services and products on top of it.
From these facts, you can gather what Mozilla's intention is: to decentralize the Metaverse. Greg Fodor, one of the co-founders of Mozilla Hubs, writes in his blog, "Decentralized servers will ensure this new medium can independently grow and evolve to meet the diverse needs of people around the world."6.
farvel as Part of the Metaverse?
Currently, farvel can only fulfill a fraction of the features mentioned by Mathew Ball. As Mozilla Hubs, the farvel app, and technology advances, our platform could eventually be part of the Metaverse. But for us, this is more of an ethical issue than a technical one. With farvel, we focus on people and their privacy. That's why our users pay for the farvel product with money and not with their data, as is the case with meta. This will accompany us, for example, when we are faced with the question of whether to implement a Metaverse interface for the aforementioned data interoperability. Basically, the idea is great: as a user, I take numerous media from the Facebook wall and a video of the deceased person from YouTube into a farvel space. However, we will refrain from doing so if we find that our users would have to sacrifice their own privacy. We are convinced that grief and the associated data are highly sensitive and that sovereignty over them should be reserved for the individual users.
If and how farvel becomes part of the metaverse depends on whether we as an internet community can agree on privacy-friendly standards for the metaverse and of course on your opinion. In the development of farvel.space, we value feedback from our community very much. Feel free to stop by our Showcase Raum. If you have an opinion, advice, or feedback for us about the metaverse, privacy, our space, and beyond, you can always write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- According to Wikipedia, one definition of data interoperability or interoperability is: Interoperability (from Latin opus 'work' and inter 'between') is the ability of different systems, techniques, or organizations to work together. This usually requires compliance with common technical standards. When two systems are compatible with each other, they are also called interoperable. To the full article on Wikipedia
- Tagesschau: „Facebook tauft sich in Meta um“, in Internetseite Tagesschau, 28.10.2021, URL: https://www.tagesschau.de/wirtschaft/unternehmen/facebock-umbennung-meta-101.html, accessed 11.01.2022.
- Rixecker, Tim: „Was ist das Metaverse eigentlich?“, in Internetseite t3n, 02.12.2021, URL: https://t3n.de/news/metaverse-erklaert-hype-zukunft-1419141/, accessed 11.01.2022.
- Wikipedia: „Snow Crash“, in Internetseite Wikipedia, 18.12.2021, URL: https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Snow_Crash, accessed 11.01.2022.
- Ball, Mathew: „The Metaverse: What It Is, Where to Find it, and Who Will Build It“, in Internetseite MathewBall.vc, 13.01.2020, URL: https://www.matthewball.vc/all/themetaverse, accessed 11.01.2022.
- Eckert, Svea, Lena Kampf & Georg Mascolo: „Schwere Vorwürfe gegen Facebook“, in Internetseite Tagesschau, 05.10.2021, URL: https://www.tagesschau.de/investigativ/ndr-wdr/facebook-hassrede-111.html, accessed 11.01.2022.
- Stoll, Kathrin: „ Datenschutz: Darum ist Zuckerbergs Metaverse eine Dystopie“, in Internetseite t3n, 13.12.2021, URL: https://t3n.de/news/metaverse-datenschutz-zuckerberg-meta-1434009/, accessed 11.01.2022.
- Fodor, Greg: „The Secret Mozilla Hubs Master Plan“, in Internetseite Medium, 19.04.2020, URL: https://gfodor.medium.com/the-secret-mozilla-hubs-master-plan-2c1364033bec, accessed 11.01.2022.