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1:54pm on Wednesday, 15th November, 2023:

Does it Matter?


I posted an excerpt from Wagner James Au's book Making a Metaverse that Matters last week, and although it's clear for reasons of self-aggrandisement that I'm very much in favour of the particular lines I cited, several people asked me what I thought about the book as a whole.

OK, well I like it. I thought I would, otherwise I wouldn't have bought it. The hardback is over 300 pages long (although it would have been somewhat less than that if it had used a smaller font) and it's not the simple opportunistic sewing-together of columns from New World Notes that a cynic might suspect it might be (it would have come out in 2022 if that were the case). It has some important things to say, and it says them very persuasively.

The thrust of the book is basically that what people are calling the Metaverse now has either largely been done before in Second Life or isn't actually a key component of the Metaverse anyway. I recall when Second Life came out that people were saying it was just repeating in graphics what LambdaMOO did in text 20 years earlier, which didn't please the people at Linden Labs; saying that the latest conceptualisation of the Metaverse is just repeating in VR what Second Life did in non-VR 20 years earlier has a similar effect. People want to believe that what they're doing is so new that all bets are off, and in many cases they're right. In many cases they're wrong, though. An interface can make all the difference to an experience, but the fundamental concepts are often the same. I'd rather watch a colour movie than a monochrome one, but at their heart they're both movies.

The book is organised in four parts. Part I concerns the origins of the Metaverse, and from it you can easily appreciate why old-timers look at Metaverse hype with jaded eyes. As an even older-timer myself, who looked on Second Life with jaded eyes, I appreciate the effort but know that there are some lessons the Metaverse newcomers will just have to learn for themselves (possibly at great expense). There are also some definitions in these chapters, most of which I agree with but some of which I quibble with (such as whether the Metaverse is a single virtual world or a portal to multiple virtual worlds); then again, part of the problem with writing about the Metaverse is that there are too many interpretations of what it is and too few of what it needs to be, so this kind of thing is only to be expected.

Part II is about where we stand today, looking at platforms that have enough Metaverse characteristics that they could form the basis of the Metaverse. I was surprised by the section on VRChat, I hadn't realised it was as popular and established as it is.

The book sees a lot of good in the idea of the Metaverse, but maintains a critical eye throughout. It's the job of part III to debunk over-optimistic Metaverse assumptions, which it does with great glee. It also points out some of the glossed-over hard truths that any Metaverse would have to deal with but which Metaverse evangelists seem to address by closing their eyes tightly, putting their fingers in their ears and humming. Really, folks, moderating content and dealing with children and toxic users is something you have to think about from the get-go.

Part IV is more optimistic, talking about what the future might bring and how it might be brought. There's a definitive positivity, seeing glimmers of hope among the mess created by ill-informed investment in the wrong areas. It's accepted that the Metaverse won't be for everyone, but could be for many more people than it is at present.

Some quotes I made a note of while I was reading through (yes, I do make notes of books when I read them through):
P57 "It's difficult to develop a metaverse platform that is both optimised for smartphones and for VR headsets."
P111 "You see a lot more creativity when players aren't sociologically encouraged to be obsessed about their hair."
P171 "In a 2021 survey of VRChat users ... two out of three were male, but (very notably) the remaining gender split was almost exactly equal between females (17%) and those who selected 'tran/nonbinary/other' (17.5%)."
P193 "Preference [realistic human avatars] in your virtual world, and all the hidden and not so hidden preferences of our offline world come along with them."
P200 "Only Community Must Be Interoperable."

Overall, I found the book a good read and did learn from it. If it had come out a year earlier, it could have saved some Metaverse developers millions, but as I don't really care that they lost money anyway, I'm not complaining.

So, to those people who asked me what I thought about the book: that's what I thought about it.

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Copyright © 2023 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).