Dear, Metaverse: calm down

After over a year of constant hype and speculation with frustratingly little to show for it all, enough is enough. Even for an industry so often hooked on buzzwords and shiny new things, our collective obsession with the metaverse is looking increasingly unjustified.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m open to a revolution – I’m just not seeing the connection between the promise and where the metaverse is at today.

Firstly, the word itself. Many marketers are already sick of hearing about it. Some brands (e.g., Heineken) have publicly lampooned it. And those who don’t roll their eyes, tend to experience a cocktail of intimidation and befuddlement when they encounter it. These aren’t the attitudes one would expect to be associated with an innovation that’s about to change all of our lives.

While not exactly interchangeable, I prefer the term ‘web3’ to ‘metaverse’ because it helps us fully comprehend the shift we’re witnessing rather than stigmatise a new word whose dystopian undertones are so obvious it sounds like it was created by a science fiction writer… oh, right.

Web 3.0 follows web 2.0 – the version of the internet that gave rise to social media and the data-driven business model. Unlike web2, web3 is founded on the premise that the consumer (rather than the network) owns their own data ubiquitously across their entire digital experience. That, genuinely, is something to get excited about.

But the virtual worlds of the metaverse often feel like the laziest way our brains can make sense of what web3 can deliver. Why have so many people rushed in to recreate their real-world environments? It shows a lack of creativity. I’m also worried about how inclusive these virtual worlds will be as it seems a small privileged few are leading the design of web3. Where are the diverse voices in this conceptual phase?

So, are we focused on the wrong thing? Entertainment (particularly games and music) has largely been where brands have entered the worlds of the metaverse (e.g. Roblox, Fortnite, Minecraft). That’s because it’s generally quite cool and aligns with the most popular use cases. Plenty of fashion brands have recognised the opportunity to insert themselves into virtual game worlds in ways that support existing player behaviours and their obsession with new ‘skins’. ‘Play to earn’ models in games have helped transition players to web3, but blockchain gaming is still a wild frontier and probably not a comfortable space for non-endemic brands who are only now starting to feel confident aligning to conventional games and esports.

It might just be that education and training are the two most likely use cases where brands can succeed in the metaverse. Less to do with entertainment, less tactical, and less headline-worthy, but it’s still pretty damn compelling. Better still, the opportunity for a more powerful collective activism where our ability to monetize our own data and the attribution of the blockchain creates more pressure to affect rapid change in society. Needless to say, I don’t quite think we’re aiming high enough by using this tech to mint NFTs of dodgy pixel art.

It’s hard to understand why corporations are trying to dictate what the metaverse should be and ‘own’ it for outmoded commercial reasons when the very premise opposes that notion. If web3 is a democratic protest against what web2 has become, we need to pay attention to that. Yes, there’s money to be made, but the potential to further humankind should be the goal that delivers the payday. And if that is too idealistic then at least aim for something that isn’t a short-term, trivial buzzkill like a poorer imitation of our real world.

The metaverse of today is nascent. So, unless you have dollars to burn, I’d recommend first understanding the shift to a trustless, decentralised digital world and your brand’s likely place in it without actually committing resources to executing anything publicly just yet. Employee engagement would be my focus.

In the meantime, the metaverse is likely to be a flame for many a moth and can’t evolve fast enough to realise the potential of web3 to improve our lives. Perhaps, then, we might finally have something to show for all of the noise.

Matt Lawton, MD at Five by Five Australia.

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