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Fast-forwarding the virtual society in the Metaverse

By John Favaro and Patrizia Falcone (GRASPnetwork)


Most people are probably aware that in October 2021 Facebook decided to change its name. CEO Mark Zuckerberg proudly announced that the new name would be Meta, and its logo would be the infinity symbol. Somewhat fewer people probably know what the name change is all about, so we’ll start by summarizing it.


“Meta” is (in this case) a reference to the word Metaverse. The term was coined nearly thirty years ago in the novel Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. He explained that the term was mostly intended to replace the term “virtual reality”, which was starting to become popular back then. Stephenson also popularized the term “avatar” in that novel – a term which, many years later, the film Avatar cemented in our modern vocabulary.


In other words, then, Zuckerberg was telling us that, in the future, Facebook/Meta wants to concentrate on the creation of virtual worlds, virtual communities, virtual cultures and activities – constructing and utilizing all of the necessary technology to make that happen.


“You're going to really feel like you're there with other people. You'll see their facial expressions or body language,” Zuckerberg explained. And of course, you’ll be able to create avatars to represent you in all kinds of different situations.


What does this have to do with us at GRASP? It’s a confirmation of the fundamental premise behind GRASP: the world is becoming more and virtual. It is dematerializing right before our eyes. Actually, the Facebook transition into Meta is more than a confirmation of our premise: it is a fast-forwarding of the process of dematerialization, making us wonder whether it will arrive even earlier than we ourselves at GRASP thought.


There is also a feeling of déjà vu about all this. As many of you may know, this is by no means the first time that somebody has created a Metaverse. One prominent example is Second Life, which has been around now for nearly twenty years and considered by many to be the very first complete example of a Metaverse. One of us (John) wrote an essay about Second Life a few years after its launch, which explored a number of topics that are strikingly relevant even today. For example, these virtual worlds are very real super-consumers of energy, just like the electronic currencies of today (e.g., Bitcoin), and thus represent a potential threat to the environment (to give you an idea: it was once estimated that a virtual Second Life avatar consumes as much energy in a year as a real Brazilian person). The essay also investigated the psychological aspects of choosing an avatar to represent you (for example, choosing an older person as an avatar leads to increased empathy for the aged).


Will Facebook succeed in this initiative to fast-forward us all into the Metaverse? Nobody knows for sure, of course. But we had an intriguing indication way back in 2009 when we went to a local high school to present Second Life to a group of teenagers who were already part of the “born digital” generation. We had them design their own avatars, and Patrizia conducted an experiment that she called “Second Life – Real Life”. Using improvisational techniques from her work as a theater director, she had the students first devise and carry through social interactions among themselves, and then transfer those interactions into Second Life. At the end of the experiment, we asked them which type of interaction they had found to be the most satisfying. Without exception, the students preferred the real-life interaction by a long margin – and remember: these students were born digital.


A final, ironic note: after that surprising result, we asked them if there was currently any online experience they were attracted to. They answered, “Facebook – it connects you to real people.”

Over a decade later, it seems that Facebook has come full circle.