I am a big believer in the power of stories.
In 1993, journalist Julian Dibbell wrote an article for the Village Voice entitled “A Rape in Cyperspace“, in which he described a series of moderating decisions that were taken at an early virtual community called LambdaMOO. The online shenanigans are familiar to anyone who has spent any time online nowadays, but back then it was an interesting account of the problems in regulating spaces that had not been developed with any sort of moderation in mind.
The article became an instant classic in Internet regulation studies, and can still be found in the opening chapters of several of the most cited books on the subject, including Lessig’s “Code” and Goldsmith and Wu’s “Who Controls the Internet?” The reason for this is that Dibbell is a great writer, obviously, but also that the story it tells is one that resonated with those who were grappling with how to regulate Cyberspace. To me the appeal of the article is that it describes a totally free environment that resembles the “state of nature” described by Hobbes in the Leviathan, this is a lawless space where people exist before the social contract. The article then works as the moment in which innocence is lost and the inhabitants of Cyberspace must choose regulation if they are to survive. They sign the social contract by which they abdicate their freedom in order to obtain security. Another interesting aspect of this story is that the enforcement is performed by the technological elite, by people with the administrative power to enforce it.
So the story of LambdaMOO became a foundational aspect of online regulation, setting powerful narratives that would dominate a lot of the early debates about Internet regulation. The lawless frontier of free individuals. Cyberspace as a different place without regulation. Benign admins regulating when needed. Self-organising societies. Technocratic elites. It’s no surprise that much of the regulatory efforts that followed tended to believe these narratives, powerful as they are.
Of course Cyberspace was never such a lawless environment, and self-regulation failed miserably wherever deployed. The benign technocratic elite of “do no evil” never had our best interest at heart.
Why do I bring up this? Because it is time for us to see what the foundational stories shaping Metaverse regulation will be. Who will write the new “A Rape in the Metaverse”? Who will set the regulatory agenda?
While the writer is yet unknown, we may already have a likely candidate for the founding story. An early tester of Meta’s Venues VR space complained that she was harassed and sexually assaulted a few seconds after joining the space for the first time. Other outlets have reported similar abuse reports in Meta’s Horizon. It is definitely disheartening that after decades, the one thing that prompts outrage is sexual abuse in virtual spaces. The problem is that this is a problem that is not new, and has been experienced in games, virtual worlds, chatrooms, and social media around the world. Perhaps what made it newsworthy this time is that it is now happening on the Metaverse, but anyone familiar with any game of virtual space will know that abuse continues to happen all the time.
Part of the issue here is that abuse has always been part of online life, and that all regulatory and moderation efforts have to be taken to curb it or remove it altogether wherever possible, and the fact that this is taking place in a new technology is not the real issue, the issue is that this is still allowed to exist, and that its migration to a new medium is just the latest opportunity to obtain a few clicks. Tackle abuse because it is abuse, not because it is in a new format!
Besides the problem of founding narratives that feel old, we have the continuing pesky problem that we still do not have a very good definition of what the Metaverse even is, and this is why I am concerned about selling the Metaverse as a new and unique space that requires new set of rules. Does that sound familiar?
There just isn’t a prevailing definition of what is the Metaverse. The corporate version, pushed by Facebook, is that the Metaverse equals virtual reality. There is some logic behind this move, Facebook needs to revitalise its business model as it continues to lose market share and coolness factor to platforms like TikTok. Facebook is now synonymous with Boomers. Facebook is old, tired, and full of fake news and Maga hats. So they want Meta to be the place for the next big thing, and that is VR. Needless to say, having access to juicy eye-tracking data could also prove to be a big seller to surveillance capitalists, hence the hard sell we’re seeing everywhere.
The problem with this is that VR is not really that new, the first commercial VR headset was sold by SEGA in the 90s. Since then, VR has continued to struggle to move beyond a niche market. It is true that VR sales have been on the rise in recent years, but the market remains very small. Worldwide VR sales for 2021 were only 11 million, and while that was an increase, it’s still relatively small. For comparison, in the same year the Nintendo Switch sold 100 million units. While market estimates continue to chart an increase in sales, these are nowhere near the level of meteoric adoption that other technologies have.
Perhaps a more telling statistic is that even if sales are up, actual VR usage is still very low. It’s difficult to find figures, but Steam’s annual report is a good place to start, they calculate that the number of monthly connected headsets in 2021 and early 2022 hovers between 2.5 million and 3 million. For comparison, Steam has 132 million monthly players, which means that around 3.5% of Steam users use a VR headset. This would mean that while sales may be up, and there is a small uptick in monthly usage, many people may be purchasing sets that just gather dust. I can personally attest to that after buying a set in 2020, and having used it only twice. It quite simply makes me sick, I get dizzy and have to remove it immediately. My set was also extremely bad with glasses.
I have heard many similar complaints, and there is something about the way a VR set makes you look like a complete dork who is not in control. While I am sure that virtual reality use will continue to grow, I do not see it becoming the universal technology depicted in media such as Ready Player One. The solution could be the use of Augmented Reality sets instead of VR, or perhaps lighter mixed VR/AR sets like the ones found in the fantastic “Upload“. My money is on AR anyway.
So if the Metaverse is not VR, then what is it? There is another camp that argues that the Metaverse will remain 2D, but that it will be all about cryptocurrencies, the blockchain, and NFTs, the so-called Web3. Under this idea, we will all be inhabiting monetised spaces where all ownership, identity, and interaction will be mediated via smart contracts. I have to be honest and state that I just don’t see this as a viable Metaverse option. Firstly, I find the idea of commodifying all the things to be extremely distasteful. Secondly, crypto adoption remains minimal despite the hype, the idea that the Metaverse will be based on a niche of a niche is fanciful to say the least. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, blockchain spaces are slow and do not scale well, I have tried Decentraland and found it to be a slower and crappier version of what Second Life was in 2007.
The third option is that the Metaverse already exists, and it is any persistent virtual space where the user can have some form of digital presence in the shape of an avatar. If we use that definition, then the Metaverse has been with us from the start, we just were calling it virtual worlds, or even Cyberspace.
So the Metaverse will be all, it is VR, AR, Web3, Fortnite, World of Warcraft, Second Life, Horizon, Decentraland, and anything in between. This means that the founding stories, that the stories that would lead towards regulation of the space, are the same as for Cyberspace. Which means more of the same.
This is perhaps not so bad after all. We will see lots of call to regulate the Metaverse, so whenever you hear any policymaker trying to push for something like that, just think that they are proposing regulation that equally applies to Roblox and Among Us. The Metaverse is already here, and the regulation that it requires is the same that applies to everything else online.
What is certain is that everything will be digital, as this amazing song says.