The Guardian’s take on the social media metaverse: It may still be science fiction | Editorial

In the 1992 sci-fi dystopia Snow Crash, author Neal Stephenson imagined a dark 21st century where the collapse of the global economy had seen governments fall and their power replaced by a few giant corporations. The book stands out for its foreknowledge, anticipating the adoption of what were then considered outlandish technologies like wireless internet, cryptocurrencies, and smartphones, as well as the rise of the gig economy. But it was the book’s prophetic vision of the “metaverse” that rekindled interest in the work.

Indeed, Stephenson described the online virtual reality experience that almost every tech giant today wants to exploit commercially. Last October, Microsoft announced that users of its online meetings app Teams could turn into avatars — the Stephenson term popularized in Snow Crash — to encourage users to interact virtually. A few days later, Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, renamed his company Meta, emphasizing the potential of virtual worlds.

Mr Zuckerberg wants to convince the world he has found new ways to make money – a quest which has become more urgent since last week it was revealed that the company’s user base may not have just plateaued, but is beginning to decline. This is partly because many Apple iPhone owners choose not to be tracked by apps such as Facebook and young people prefer to hang out on the Chinese social media network TikTok. Facebook User Engagement provides personal data used to target advertising. Mr. Zuckerberg’s Meta rebranding aims to signal that he will improve his company’s targeting and measurement techniques – and derive more revenue from its users.

However, the metaverse may not be the future. The corporate version of social media has been accused, with some justification, of rotting democracy from within. Because Facebook, Twitter and YouTube loom so large in the public imagination, there is a “blind spot”, computer scientist Ethan Zuckerman suggests, for alternative models. Yet they are there. Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the Web, wants to take back power from big tech and give people control over their personal data.

Other decentralized platforms – like Mastodon – allow online communities to be created with different rules. Progressive Twitter users in India moved to in 2019 after a supporter was suspended. However, the largest decentralized social network is Gab, which serves right-wing extremists without a platform. There are also social media platforms built around cryptocurrency/blockchain capitalism, which currently has a prohibitive carbon footprint.

Contributors to these sites are usually rewarded with tokens, which theoretically rewards high-quality content. However, this model has its drawbacks: in particular that voting power is proportional to currency holdings. When Steemit, one of the original crypto sites, was bought out, its new owner used its market power to move it to its own blockchain system, which precipitated user walkouts.

Mr Zuckerman’s wish is for “many more social networks” that are explicitly governed by the communities that work with them and offer tools that give more control over what is seen and how it is seen. He believes a period of fertile creativity can produce a new, more cooperative form of social media. We hope he is right.

About Cecil Cobb

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