Facebook is betting on the metaverse. But what is that, anyway?

Photo by AP images

With its rebrand as Meta, Facebook is hitching its wagon to a virtual future—and hoping that its investors and its users will go along for the ride.

Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of the social network giant, announced the rebranding on Thursday, along with a vision for the “metaverse,” a digital world layered over the physical one, in which people interact via avatar.

The announcement comes as Facebook faces some of its most intense scrutiny yet, following revelations about its internal decision-making and questions about its role in the Jan. 6 insurrection revealed by whistleblower Frances Haugen.

Yakov Bart, associate professor of marketing and the Joseph G. Riesman Research Professor in the D’Amore-McKim School of Business. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

“The timing is conspicuous,” says Yakov Bart, associate professor of marketing and the Joseph G. Riesman Research Professor at Northeastern. “Certainly it could be perceived as an intentional move to divert attention away from the negative news around the Facebook Papers,” Bart adds, referring to a trove of internal documents released to news outlets that generated a Congressional hearing.

Nevertheless, he says, what’s clear is that the announcement was more for Meta’s investors than its consumers—a signal that the company is looking forward with new ideas for revenue.

“There are only so many ads you can put in that two-dimensional space of Facebook,” Bart says. “At the conceptual level, what the metaverse does best is conjure up a future in which Facebook might command consumer attention in three dimensions.”

The concept isn’t new—the term originates in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 dystopian novel “Snow Crash”—but because of some social and cultural developments recently, the metaverse may be closer to reality than ever before, says Brooke Foucault Welles, associate professor and interim department chair in the Department of Communication Studies at Northeastern.

Brooke Foucault Welles, associate professor of communication studies and interim chair of the Department of Communication Studies. Photo by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

Welles defines the metaverse as “a future wherein technology—including the kinds of technology we have now, plus augmented reality and virtual reality—allow us to live a life that’s detached from space and time.” She adds that, because of COVID-19, most people have already been “learning how to be together differently” for the better part of two years.

The widespread adoption of virtual socializing, work, and learning, in addition to the kinds of technological upgrades necessary to facilitate it (including high-speed internet, web cameras, and more), may make it easier for people to make the leap to a fully virtual world, Welles says.

Plus, it matters that a mainstream company such as Facebook (ahem, Meta) is taking up the challenge, she says. Past versions of virtual world-building were the purview of massive multiplayer online games and science fiction.

“There’s something different when a company that commands so many people’s attention is taking this seriously,” Welles says.

There are upsides to such a virtual life. As it’s designed now, social media requires a transactional sort of relationship: “You post and I reply,” says Welles, whose dissertation focused on Second Life, an app that allows people to create an avatar and have a second life in an online world.

“But if you think about a lot of your actual interactions with friends or family, what’s often most important is just sharing space with each other,” she says. In a virtual world, friends can show up for each other from across the world, without having to travel at all.

Of course, there are downsides, too. Research has shown that people embody their online avatars in a way that affects their physical beings—harm befalling someone’s virtual character can have negative physiological effects.

The pandemic also exposed and exacerbated income and access inequalities that might be amplified in the shift to a virtual world, Welles says.

Finally, it’s worth considering the environments from which ideas about the metaverse originated: dystopian futures in which life on Earth is largely inhospitable, Welles says. 

“Usually these virtual worlds come, and it’s not good news for the physical world,” she says. “There are real questions we should consider about divesting from physical space in this way.” 

For media inquiries, please contact Shannon Nargi at s.nargi@northeastern.edu or 617-373-5718.