Mat Maroni
Jan 4, 2022

But WTF is the metaverse, really?

UM's APAC chief strategy officer looks at the concept in six different ways to try to get his head around it—and see what it might eventually mean for APAC marketing.

But WTF is the metaverse, really?

Our industry loves a shiny new paradigm. And now, I have on my screen an intimidating blank document entitled “the metaverse”.

What is 'the metaverse'?

As The New York Times’ John Herrman would have it, “the biggest ideas in tech often lurch into the lexicon before they are truly coherent". Which is a very charitable way of saying this is a topic that is a very hard thing to pin down.

So let’s try.

When lost in the wilderness we’re told it’s best to look for more than one landmark; likewise when faced with something slippery like this I find it helpful to look at it from multiple angles. So read on for six ways we can use to “triangulate” our notion of this metaverse:

1. We can try to define it

This is time well spent because the metaverse is a hot topic. Futureproof marketers need to get a handle on it, fast. Your boss might ask you about it (I suspect mine will). Critically, much of the enthusiasm around it comes from the handful of people who don’t just reflect trends in the industry but drive them. So how do these advocates talk about the metaverse? What definitions do they use?

The eager Mark Zuckerberg sees it as nothing less than “the successor to the mobile internet” and specifically, “a virtual environment where you can be present with people in digital spaces”. Interesting but still fairly cold. 

Can we get into the specific attributes of a metaverse?

2. We can deconstruct it

Venture capitalist Matthew Ball usefully ventures seven characteristics: a persistent experience; that is both synchronous and live; with no cap to concurrent users; functioning as an economy; spanning both digital and physical worlds; with unprecedented interoperability; and driven by decentralised work from a range of contributors.

Getting warmer. Pretty dense, though. 

3. We can tighten it

Casey Newton at The Verge frames it as “a convergence of physical, augmented and virtual reality in a shared online space”.

How about an example?

Ball encourages us to step into the shoes of a current Fortnite player, and the way they can literally wear a Marvel characters’ costume inside Gotham City, while interacting with other players wearing legally licenced NFL uniforms. Allow that Fortnite player to step fluidly out of the game, and into something else, taking any assets they’ve acquired into an experience owned by another corporation and you’re warmer still. The metaverse will be a melting-pot of pop culture IP.

4. We can say what we see

What does it mean, practically, to say someone is in the metaverse?

What would I see if they were here now, in front of me?

They are likely to be immersed in a mediated environment, enabled by VR or AR technology. That immersive, naturalistic, more embodied experience is likely to be persistent and enabled by blockchain; we can expect this experience to live on some sort of cloud-computing service.

Specifically, this person might be doing more than playing Fortnite—they may be paying rent to a business for virtual realestate. Or painstakingly specifying the impressive, expensive avatar that might be key to networking.  Perhaps they are meeting holographic colleagues, intimately connected by spatial audio. Each and every activity in what we once thought of as the real world will develop a metaversal equivalent, with attendant opportunities to spend money doing that activity online.

5. We can let it go

There’s a limit to the degree we can usefully pin things neatly down, like a butterfly to a board. In the words of Kellen Browning at The New York Times “the exact meaning of the metaverse, and what it portends for digital life, is far from clear”. This fuzziness might be a feature, not a bug. It’s worth bearing in mind, that in the original spirit of Tim Berners-Lee’s web, there is no one singular vision or “owner” of the metaverse concept—it resists definition in precisely the same way every website exists non-hierarchically on the open protocol of the internet.

6. We can invert it

Here’s useful way of looking at this: When grappling with a slippery concept I find it can also be useful to start with the exact opposite. What is the opposite of a metaverse?

Taking Ball’s seven characteristics, and inverting them, we can think about our current lives in and around mediated environments: Today I navigate the internet through a clumsy grid of skeuomorphic applications; when I change apps my progress vanishes; I can be a very different person in different apps; these apps or websites are largely inactive when I move on; many things can break the spell, I can’t take my “stuff” with me when I move on—and most of this action plays out on a playing-card size screen I can switch off. 

Any move beyond this modest world can be seen as a step toward our notional metaverse.

What can this metaverse mean for us here in Asia Pacific?

The conceptual pieces are beginning to become clear, but the infrastructure is not ready, and neither are consumers. The main question remains one of fragmentation. Last year we wrote extensively about a “Splinternet” of platforms and services; two diverging global technology ecosystems, and a yawning gap between the two. 

Interoperability has taken a huge step backwards, and it’s this same interoperability upon which technoutopian visions of the meterverse depend. The outstanding questions have only become more pressing: how much do global platforms really want to cooperate? How much interoperability is really possible? How will the metaverse change the ways futureproof brands generate, and harvest demand?

These are questions for every one of us, and the answers are only just beginning to emerge. Meanwhile we could entertain another, more upbeat view. As the grand experiment of globalism falters 'in real life', perhaps through the metaverse we’ll find the common ground we need through our devices, and the rich mediated shared experience the metaverse enables.


Mat Maroni is chief strategy officer for UM APAC.

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