When Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook, the company, was changing its name to Meta, and that the aim was to better position the company to develop the Metaverse, critics were quick to pounce. This was bound to be a bad, bad thing. Writing in the New York Times Jill Lepore, an experienced tech-hater, proclaimed that “The metaverse is at once an illustration of and a distraction from a broader and more troubling turn in the history of capitalism.” Another writer warns that we must be on guard: “The Metaverse is Coming and the World is not Ready for it.” In its news coverage the Times solemnly declared that “As Meta and other companies bet big on an immersive digital world, questions about its harms are rising.” But we can all save ourselves a lot of time if we want to hear about dystopian technology and proceed immediately to The Atlantic, which titled an article “The Metaverse is Bad.”
These responses are understandable, if predictable, as a global consensus has emerged that Facebook is responsible for much that is bad about the world: every day over one billion people log onto Meta/Facebook’s services in protest. The company has contributed to everything from the rise of Donald Trump to breakneck neoliberalism, racism, sexism, autocracy, the collapse of civil order, and the insinuation of McDonald’s Happy Meals into the American diet. Meta/Facebook’s initiative must be stopped now. We were all such good people before Mark Zuckerberg entered our lives.
Of course, for every action there is a reaction, and we see The Economist adopting a cooler tone: “Don’t Mock the Metaverse.” In a rare bylined article (Herman Narula) we read that “The metaverse will contain environments where we will earn real money, forge deep relationships and have experiences that enrich our lives. This will have a profound effect on how societies function and on how the world’s economies and democracies work.” And if you are mostly interested in making money and are willing to ignore the nasty stuff, the Metaverse could be big business as virtual worlds align with cryptocurrencies: “The Metaverse Could Bring in $1 Trillion Annually.”
The commentary about Meta/Facebook and the Metaverse reminded me of an anecdote, perhaps apocryphal, attributed to Henry Kissinger: When asked by Kissinger what he thought of the French Revolution, Zhou Enlai replied, “It is too soon to tell.” We would do well to think of the Metaverse dispassionately and put aside our hatred for Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg. A more useful set of questions might be, What is the Metaverse? What are its properties and how is it likely to evolve? And not incidentally, how can the Metaverse be used in scholarly communications?
For my part, the most interesting news article to appear about the Metaverse appeared in the New York Times, but not on the Op-Ed page, with its thundering moralists. It was in the Fashion section, where we read about having a virtual wedding celebration. Want a destination wedding? Well, why restrict it to a Caribbean resort or Hawaii? You can go anywhere and do anything. Wedding planners are not spending time on the Big Questions of Good and Evil; they are trying to come up with new ideas for their clients. The Metaverse, in other words, is a tool, and the important thing about a new tool is to have a lot of people experiment with it to see where it can go. This is where innovation happens, not among the gods on Mount Olympus but in small, tangible ways where people go about their lives and try to improve them a little bit at a time. We all work together, unknowingly, making things better, faster, cheaper.
We would do well to think of the Metaverse dispassionately and put aside our hatred for Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg.
Predicting where a new tool will take us is a fool’s errand, of course, but practitioners of scholarly communications may want to consider the Metaverse as a new medium, comparable in some respects to audio or video or the networked worlds of Twitter or Pinterest. When Twitter came along, the right question was, What can we do with it? Some people are dismissive about any medium for scholarly communications that is not as good as, or a substitute for, the formally published article. But the formal article is only one aspect of scholarly communications. Twitter, for example, is very good for discovery and certain kinds of discussion. Facebook–yes, Facebook–is very good for shared spaces. Every medium has its own properties, and the point is to explore them. I anticipate, for one example, that we will see a lot of experimentation with virtual worlds and scientific methodology. Why read a description of a method when you can, virtually, “be” there?
Yes, the bad guys will be asking these questions, too. But do you want them to take the lead in a new medium? Do you want theirs to become the dominant voices? The fact is, unfortunate though it may be, no management team has the luxury of not experimenting with a new technology, for the simple reason that someone else will. The question is not whether to experiment or not but what kind of experiment makes the most sense and is likely to lead to new directions for the business?
For people working in scholarly communications, the first set of questions about the Metaverse may be these:
- What are the properties of the Metaverse? What does it do? What can it do?
- What examples of the Metaverse can I find (an environmental scan)? Do any of these examples have implications for my own area?
- Will there be multiple platforms for the Metaverse or will one come to dominate? Has Meta/Facebook already taken the lead, or will it face serious competition?
- Is it likely or possible that a platform could emerge solely for academic activity, or will Metaverse platforms cross multiple areas of activity, as Google does?
- How can the Metaverse be monetized (but don’t get stuck on this question too early)?
As the Metaverse becomes more established, if it becomes more established, the questions about its utility will permeate every department of every organization. It is easy to forget that it is not so long ago that we thought of a job as a place where we went. Now it is a set of digital identities and tasks, mediated by any number of virtual platforms (Zoom, Dropbox, Slack, etc.). We will be asking, How can the Metaverse improve the number and quality of submissions to our journals? How can the Metaverse help identify new vendors? How can the Metaverse assist in recruitment? And since this is a publishing enterprise, all hands will be focused on the most important question: Should we capitalize “Metaverse” or spell it lowercase?