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The metaverse and social media: A natural extension, or a misleading prediction?

While elements of social media may transfer to the metaverse, it's too soon to say for now.

Darting fishes of social commentary follow the manta rays of metaverse discussions, closely tied yet separate. It’s no surprise, either; metaverse conversations share the same breath as social media, as an extension of already-present problems online. Connecting the two together is straightforward, relevant, and perhaps necessary. Some argue further; “the metaverse simply is the next evolution of social media – just as it is the next evolution of online gaming, remote working, and e-commerce,” said Bernard Marr, a futurist.

The conclusion makes sense. We are inherently social creatures, and the metaverse may be the natural evolution of this. On the other side is division; the last ten years have been a uniquely polarising time for the world. Studies disagree on the extent to which social media plays a role, though it is clear that divisions have widened over the last few years, particularly between the left and right (and other political groups beyond). Compare this to Matt Navarra, a social media consultant, who pulled no punches: “There is no reason to think that the metaverse will be able to escape the problems of social media, or that there is a magical solution to implement to tackle the problems. For example, will echo chambers also exist in the metaverse? I would say so. Plus, we may still gravitate towards like-minded people in virtual worlds, while not seeing those with opposing views. But it is hard to say, as we are still unsure how people will use the metaverse, or what it will look like at scale.”

But how impacted will the metaverse be? Are comparisons to social media weak, like comparing the technologies of the 1800s to 2023; so different in scope and potential that comparisons are useless? Perhaps the metaverse has the potential to form novel kinds of social problems, based on its own unique characteristics. Or perhaps all of this is fantasy, as the metaverse will be built with ethical standards at its core – which early signs may prove true. Let’s dive in and see.

Is it too soon to compare the metaverse to social media? Photo credit: Tom Ffiske

Is it too soon to compare the metaverse to social media? Photo credit: Tom Ffiske

How will social media work in the metaverse?

At present, it is difficult to say how much social media will influence the metaverse. One difficulty is that it's challenging to pin down its final form. We are a long way from the metaverse developing to its full potential. But we can still assume that it will have a spatial component where avatars can converse, collaborate, and take action together over time. The actual form may differ in the years to come, though users will need to speak to others.

These discussions are also very early, as many social VR platforms are in the early stages of development. George Mason University studied the five most popular ones (AltspaceVR, Horizon Worlds, Mozilla Hubs, Rec Room, and VRChat), and found that a few technical challenges remain. "Their throughput, end-to-end latency, and on-device computation resource utilization increase almost linearly with the number of users, leading to potential scalability issues,” the team said.

Still, I can see how these issues can grow in the metaverse as well, like reeds that peek out of the turbulent waters of discussion. Though the metaverse is nebulous, we can be confident that it will involve some level of human connectivity and conversations – which may lead to potential problems. Imagine rabbles of like-minded avatars who converse and share information, or are steadily radicalised based on coercion. We have already seen this happen in Roblox, as extremists bring new recruits to their work. Cases are rare, like blips on a platform with over fifty daily active users. Even so, we have a role to minimise harm.

Take blocking as one example. Users can already block people on Twitter if they disagree, or to protect themselves. A virtual equivalent can happen on virtual platforms too, silencing users with the wave of an arm. The tools are critical; with cases of harassment increasing, they’re vital to help protect people. But the same tools have wider implications too. A hammer can be used to fix as well as to harm.

Echo chambers can form too, as users congregate in virtual worlds of like-minded people. These groups form tight communities; I spoke to people who developed tight bonds during the pandemic, meeting on virtual platforms for events like Sunday church services. However, these same groups do not have the pitter-patter of alternative views that float into social media feeds or even meet different people. Yes, users may browse worlds and hop to and fro; but active choices lead to less experimentation than passive browsing with recommended content. We will come back to this point later.

Metaverse platforms are moving much faster than other types of media. Photo credit: Roblox.

Metaverse platforms are moving much faster than other types of media. Photo credit: Roblox.

What evidence do we have for this?

What’s less clear is whether these issues will actually transfer. Perhaps so; they are logical extensions of today's problems. But do studies corroborate these views, or tell a different story?

Quantitative studies are scarce, though qualitative analysis provides compelling arguments. Ljubisa Bojic analysed the metaverse through the prism of power, arguing that power dynamics in today’s world may transfer to a revised paradigm. The paper focused on the potential of ‘recommender systems,’ which can be opaque in design. “The truth is determined and directed by tech companies through power to showcase content to social media users and do invisible automated or manual moderation, which is, in other words, censorship, also supporting Michel Foucault’s idea of power,” he said.

We need more quantitative studies to understand the problem. For instance, research could be conducted to explore how content moderation can form divisions within a strictly metaverse space. We have a flurry of anecdotes, but not enough data to back them up. We need to shine a light on it, to elucidate insights we cannot have otherwise.

Is the metaverse a social media platform?

The metaverse will be different from social media, and comparisons become tricky the deeper you delve. Few would have predicted the speed, ferocity, and vibrancy of today’s social media platforms in the 1990s. Ask a person in the 1900s about the 2000s, and the responses would have been through the lens of the technologies of their day; communication via radio, and transportation via train.

Take socialisation, which can work differently. On the one hand, it can work well to bring a sense of compassion and empathy to discussions. Users scroll through feeds and lack a sense of connection to the human impact; mass shootings and forest fires become pixels on the screen, not catastrophes in their communities. The metaverse builds a new kind of affinity, one based on human interactions.

The experience has to be more localised. Yes, metaverse-related events will bring like-minded people together in the same mass-audience style as social media. However, few people know all participants in a big gathering, drawing attention to a particular place and time. Discord is the home of hyper-niche communities; the metaverse will be the same, as small virtual worlds congregate around topics. It would not surprise me if a supper club existed where users hop from place to place, discussing topics across tables of cedar or marble. A better sense of the person encourages healthier discussions.

These localised places will shrink the perspectives of people who roam. We may see world-hoppers who experiment and have fun, but it's more likely that people will go towards what is familiar, or safe, or catered to their own beliefs. This could result in people not engaging with people who have different views and cultures, which will limit their virtual experiences. A shame, in a virtual place where more may be possible. We still have a way to go, basically. “Our platforms have integrated rewards, levels, and incentives that unlock the positivity, social experiences and sharing that people need for authentic connection and fun,” said Maura Welch, VP of marketing at Together Labs. “These are pieces that are missing from social media that are unique to the metaverse.”

Social media has evolved in a unique way over the last few years.

Social media has evolved in a unique way over the last few years.

A new range of experiences

I firmly believe that the metaverse is the natural continuation of our social connectivity and experiences. That same belief also informs my view that we should be careful how we tread. While the metaverse has the potential to bring revolutionary forms of human interaction and communication, it also carries the risk of reproducing the potential harms we see on social media today. The lack of quantitative research on the potential impact of the metaverse on social dynamics highlights the need for more studies in this area. Additionally, the development of tools in the metaverse that protect users may also contribute to the creation of echo chambers and shrinking world-views. It is critical to consider these potential ramifications as the metaverse continues to evolve.

My own online experiences have been forged by playing in online spaces, such as World of Worldcraft and Runescape. My professional life brought me closer to Horizon Worlds and VRChat. The shape of our future will be different too – I just hope it will be healthy.

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