In Mark Zuckerberg’s vision for the metaverse, consumers will embody themselves in a virtual world powered by VR and AR hardware and advanced body sensors. In effect, people will be able to do everything they do in the real world in a seamless, well-lit virtual world: they can play games, attend virtual meetings, hang out with virtual friends, go to virtual concerts, collect virtual art, and shop for virtual goods. This will likely result in the greater development of parasocial relationships amongst people whilst simultaneously having the potential to splinter our shared reality by giving each individual access to their own customized realities.
Zuckerberg claims that the purpose behind the metaverse is to naturalize, and not to strengthen, the relationship that people have with the internet. According to him, we are already irrevocably attached to the mobile internet and are in constant communication with each other through “small, glowing rectangles”—and the metaverse will simply serve to make this experience less artificial (touché) and to make us feel more present with the people we are interacting with.
For better or worse?
The former CEO of Google, Eric Schmidt, disagrees with Zuckerberg. When asked about Facebook’s metaverse plans in an interview with the New York Times—he said, “All of the people who talk about metaverses are talking about worlds that are more satisfying than the current world—you’re richer, more handsome, more beautiful, more powerful, faster.” According to Schmidt, the benefits that a metaverse has over the real world may lead people to forsake the world that exists in favour of a digital utopia, which, he thinks, “may not be the best thing for human society.”
When social media was first being developed, there was optimism surrounding its potential to encourage openness and connectivity amongst communities. While this has proven to be true, we now know that these platforms have also served a significant role in enabling conflicts, creating unhealthy parasocial relationships, and negatively impacting the mental health of its consumers. While a metaverse would provide people with the significant benefit of being able to either escape or subvert the individual, geographic and social limitations that bind them—its greater anthropomorphism could also make it even easier for bad actors to enable conflicts, and its increased immersiveness could result in the formation of more parasocial relationships (and fewer real-world interactions) amongst the people within the metaverse.
Parasocial relationships already exist
Traci and Dave Gagnon first met as avatars at a company event in Las Vegas in 2015 and decided to hold their wedding in a virtual environment this year. The wedding was a hybrid event: the couple hired two videographers to capture the event and simultaneously cast the ceremony to the cloud. While Virbella was originally designed to be an immersive virtual platform for companies to hold events and to create a sense of togetherness within the metaverse, it has been asked by its users to hold bar mitzvahs, weddings, and other celebrations. Clearly, the metaverse has the potential to completely reimagine how people first meet and how social gatherings take place in the future: they could be bigger in scope, easier to afford, and unfettered by the shackles of reality. In the metaverse, everyone could get married at Lake Como or the Sixth Senses Fort Barwara in Sawai Madhopur—and you could become best friends or fall in love with someone without ever having met them in person.
In Meta’s first major ad, we see a group of young people trying to get a close look at a picture of Henri Rousseau’s “Fight Between a Tiger and a Buffalo” at the Cleveland Museum of Art. As they move closer to the image, the painting suddenly flickers to life. Dean Kissick, writing for the New York Times, makes the interesting observation that in our century, the visionary role of creating new ways of experiencing life and observing the world has been passed from artists to engineers: it is now the founders of Silicon Valley who sell us the potential of utopian realities and draw our attention to the possibility of new universes. The creators of the metaverse are artists, and the metaverse is the art they are bringing to life—and, thereby, making “real.” The idea of a metaverse is still riddled with trade-offs—but I would argue that if something exists and people believe in it, then there should be no distinction between a real-world and a virtual world or real relationships and parasocial relationships.