The metaverse needs a better story

We must be better storytellers to combat media cynicism and craft a positive future.

The business world is full of good storytellers. Compile words into a neat package, and you can sell directly to people’s hearts with a flash and grin. Nike does not just sell shoes; the company sells the aspirations and dreams of athletes who wish to push themselves. You cannot weave authenticity into the soles of shoes, but you know that each pair tells a personal story. Every company can enrich its story – no excuses. Take Thames Water, a typical utility service in London. It doesn’t simply pump water into homes; it delivers “life’s essential service” so that communities “can thrive.”

I believe a key issue is that we are not telling the story of the metaverse clearly or well enough. The lack of direction confuses media reports time and time again, as people spin it into a more negative incarnation. (Unhelpfully, the word “metaverse” primarily comes from dystopian novels). Our lack of clarity hurts outside awareness – and perhaps leads to business hesitancy. One survey found that 41% of UK citizens have “no understanding whatsoever” of the metaverse. The same was shown in a YouGov poll in the US. Yes, the survey showed regional differences; twice as many people in China would take part in metaverse experiences compared to Brits and Americans. Yet it still demonstrates that a passive dismissal permeates across the UK and US, and likely beyond the two.

Why the cynicism? I cover a few reasons in the newsletter, but what ties them together is a lack of a cohesive narrative. A good story is important in the business world because it maps out where we are going with our work. It’s intangible but important. I’ve seen immersive healthtech companies short-sell their services; some dryly label themselves as “integrated services companies,” rather than pioneers that help companies to save lives. One phrase stays on PowerPoint decks, while the other is more likely to leave a human impact after the meeting.

Most importantly, it provides a horizon to build towards. As Mary Bateson said, “the human species thinks in metaphors and learns through stories.” I do not want the metaverse to be packaged into a negative parable. I believe that we need to better tell how the metaverse will develop or grow – or risk its history being shelved in a dusty corner of the library. How we get there is opaque, but I have a story in mind.

Executive summary

  • Media cynicism: The metaverse is not well understood or appreciated by the media and the public, who tend to focus on the negative aspects of Meta’s vision and products. To alleviate this, there needs to be a better story that communicates value more clearly.

  • Confusion: We have been bad at telling the value of our own activities, and the gaps have been easily filled with stories of negativity.

  • Simplicity: A good story comes down to simplicity, even sacrificing details. Apple is a great example of this which other companies can learn from.

  • A good story: We need to articulate a more positive story that has a firm end-point, which people can grasp quickly and easily. My proposal for what it should look like is at the end of the article.

The media doubts the metaverse.

The media doubts the validity of the metaverse. Photo credit: Midjourney.

Media cynicism and the metaverse

First, let’s touch on why a good story matters. If you solely read the news, you would think the metaverse already had its funeral service some time ago. Ed Zitron wrote an obituary to the metaverse in an opinion piece for Business Insider, calling it “the once-buzzy technology that promised to allow users to hang out awkwardly in a disorientating video-game-like world.” John Naughton wrote a more obvious example for the Guardian: “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to remember the metaverse, which was quietly laid to rest a few weeks ago by its grieving adoptive parent, one Mark Zuckerberg.” Cue a casual throw of pixelated flowers across a metal casket.

While entertaining, the articles falsely link the two together, tying them tighter than a person and their shadow. The success of Meta equals the success of the metaverse, their fates in parallel. This is not true. It is like tying the success of AOL to the early development of the internet, following the rises and pitfalls of one against the other. The metaverse is much, much bigger than one company, and weaving them together only complicates the matter.

Why do these articles come out? Part of the story is to rile up readers and draw clicks – and it works. Tim Sweeney retweeted the Business Insider and made an artful jab, once it went viral:

I won’t deflect all points here, as it’s not the scope of the article. But basically, I come from a position where the metaverse will take many years to develop, and with several failed companies along the way. I see an initial gold rush of companies hopping into a trend (2021), shaving down the companies that have a long-term interest in its potential (2023 onwards). I’ve defended the metaverse elsewhere, but for now, let’s focus on the media reality and the story behind it.

It's abundantly clear that criticising the metaverse (and Meta) is a good way to stir up conversations and engagement. A recent report found that negativity drives news consumption, which builds on the corpus of evidence from previous years. This media narrative on the metaverse checks all the same boxes, as negative stories have a greater impact than most PR pump pieces. I have seen this with my own analytics in the newsletter. While all companies receive clicks when I report on them, negative stories on the larger companies tend to get the lion’s share (alongside grant submissions and awards/events dates).

A part of it comes down to articulating value. Where is the metaverse going, anyway? Is it a haven for crypto bros who chat about NFT artworks? Is it a spatial internet where people socialise and play? Is it something we have already, as people play Fortnite or Roblox? It’s unclear how this builds towards an ending. We have not pinned down the end-point of what we are building towards, the crescendo of the chorus we see today. That lack of direction also seeds negativity.

In short, negativity is a great hook to a story. We have all been driven into it; the seismic and slow fall of a major trend where billions have been invested into speculative services. The fall of a Goliath makes for some good reading, if inaccurate.

Currently, we lack a compelling narrative that counters the prevailing negative perception. The metaverse is a seismic opportunity as part of the evolving internet – but we have not shown it in its best light. We have not painted a truly positive vision of what the metaverse can do – the joy it can bring, the connections that can be formed, or the economic opportunities it can unlock. We’ve glazed our vision of the future with an oily smear of muddled definitions and inarticulate messages. How can we not blame the wider world for misunderstanding it, or see a bleary future through our disjointed vision?

We need to be better at telling our own story. Photo credit: Midjourney.

We need to be better at telling our own story. Photo credit: Midjourney.

Apple as a storytelling example

That’s why a good story matters. We package the disparate rubble of technical jargon, and hammer it into something that a human can understand. The more relevant and direct it is for people, the easier it is to communicate the idea.

I’ll use Apple as an example – which may come across as an overly enthusiastic piece on the company (for reference, I use a Samsung phone as it has better features for myself). But in terms of communicating a message, few companies match the Cupertino company.

Apple has been a master of this for over a decade, with a language that deftly tells its appeal. The iPhone 14 does not have a 4000 mAh battery; it has “the longest battery life of any iPhone.” It does not have IP68 water resistance; it is simply “water-resistant.” It does not have a 50 MP camera with f/1.9; it has a “pro-level camera” that takes “whoa-level pics.” I know that this sort of direct messaging comes from a place of strength. With over 1.7bn iPhone users in the world, Apple can afford to skirt the technical details. But it does provide a great example of what good messaging can do to communicate a product or idea.

I expect Apple’s upcoming headset to use similar language. If I were to speculate, I anticipate that it will boast a clear display over pixel counts, ease of wear overweight in grams, and immersive controls over 6DoF. I will certainly dig into the numbers, but the heart of good messaging is a human touch to communications. As Apple promotes its upcoming headset, technical specifications will take a backseat to highlight its potential and user experience.

The metverse’s baggage

Certain trends are easier to communicate due to their inherent value and impact. Quantum computing is an abashedly good story, for example. Who does not want to support a technology that increases power so drastically that we can identify new pharmaceuticals for difficult diseases? Or take new product categories like tablets, initially ridiculed as the in-between for phone and computer users. It was for people who wanted an easy-to-use device to browse content at home – a simple story, but an effective one.

We have failed to communicate a compelling story for the metaverse, lacking the unified clarity seen in AI or cloud computing. Both trends have tangible end-points building towards something better (or at least, what the optimists strive for). The metaverse lacks the same aspirations or clarity, wallowing in its identity crisis during its adolescent development.

Take these examples. Niantic calls for a real-world metaverse that blends the virtual and real – which pairs well with its AR offering. Compare this to Animoca Brands, which performed the most “metaverse” deals in 2022. Its vision is more blockchain-based than competitors, in sharp contrast to more spatial companies like Niantic. Then look at Meta which focuses on social connectivity, while Microsoft emphasises the tech stack. While these companies emphasize different aspects of the metaverse, the core essence remains unclear. The lack of a clear definition for the metaverse has led to confusion among the general public. A YouGov poll found that most people in the US and UK are not confident in explaining what the metaverse is.

I understand why. These companies are taking the core idea of the metaverse and putting their own perspective. But one unintended ramification is that it becomes a shattered mirror, with self-repeating views that deviate further and further away from its core. We lack a cohesive vision that ties it all together in a clear and meaningful way. The XRSI took a stab at a “standard” definition recently, which attempts to tie these technologies together – though its complexity may hamper its adoption. We need to sacrifice the details for a wider audience.

We’ve made the metaverse too complex for an outside audience. Photo credit: Midjourney.

We’ve made the metaverse too complex for an outside audience. Photo credit: Midjourney.

A more hopeful story

So what story would work well, with the simplicity and depth of other tales? For me, it would be emphasising how the metaverse is the spatial evolution of the internet, bringing joy by connecting us closer together.

Concepts are easier to grasp when they can be related to something familiar, even if they extend beyond it. Nearly everything else stems from this, from an overlay of AR to the power of VR. It is also a firm and hopeful horizon of the story, which is easier to see. If the metaverse is designed to bring us together – which is innately human – then it paints a positive picture of its future.

I appreciate it sounds reductive. How could something so massive and complex be surmised in a few words? I think simplicity is vital, because it’s the firmest ground that people can stand on. People can build Lego blocks on top of it, starting from a single point and laddering up towards a goal. Recent years have demonstrated that complexity often leads to confusion. Let industry professionals navigate the intricacies, not the general public.

Also, it draws away from the idea of ownership – owning items or our own identities shifting. I appreciate that, though I see it as a ramification of the metaverse rather than its heart. It’s a vital part of it. Still, it’s far easier to have a singular core and trace its trails, than to have multiple cores side-by-side. It’s a stronger heart.

Finally, I am assuming the metaverse will be more spatial – that is no guarantee when the primary way to access it today is via 2D computers or phones. I am showing my sleeves here, as I believe increasing spatial presence will be likely if humans wish to connect with each other in a deeper and more complex way. We’re social creatures who want to be part of one another’s lives; a more spatial internet chimes with the heart of humanity.

That might mean the word “metaverse” may disappear. I care more about the label it represents, of people coming together in some form or another. If the word dies like the information superhighway in years past, so be it. But its core idea - of a spatial internet - may outlive its etymology.

I come from a sense of frustration with how the metaverse is seen today. I see a variety of companies striving to build good services for people, who are being battered by arrows of poorly-constructed criticisms from many places. It’s a demoralising place for many, and I have spoken to some professionals who feel less motivated because of it. But the fundamentals are the same, and it’s a case of putting our best foot forward – and that starts with a heartening tale to build from. Let’s tell a good story, together.

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