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Well-versed in the Metaverse

UMD Social Media Expert Explains Why Facebook and Others Want to Create an Alternate, Online World

By Chris Carroll

Pattern of heads wearing VR goggles

Image by Stocksy

Facebook and other companies are betting a 3D online realm known as the "metaverse" will be the next big thing for the internet, but a UMD social media researcher suggests the public might not be clamoring to leave the real world behind just yet.

While those of a certain age might recall exotic novelties like accessing primitive chat rooms, logging onto AltaVista or receiving an “E-Mail,” the sense of wonder that accompanied the early internet is long gone.

Now a group of companies is placing a bet on a new internet frontier—one they hope could reinvigorate that sense of technological awe and endless possibilities for connection—with plans to build a 3D virtual world online that users can explore and interact in, called the “metaverse.”

Tech watchers took notice in April when Epic Games, founded by CEO Tim Sweeney ’93, announced it had raised $1 billion in funding to develop its metaverse vision after players of its smash hit Fortnite began hanging out in the game world (for instance, for a virtual concert by Ariana Grande) when not competing. 

Interest in the idea went into overdrive, however, when Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced last month that the world’s dominant social media company saw its future in the metaverse. Just as what the metaverse will look like is unclear, so are details of Facebook’s planned shift. But expect the company to deploy huge resources and energy both to stay ahead of the tech curve and to divert attention from some of its current problems, said Professor of Information Studies Jennifer Golbeck, a University of Maryland computer scientist who studies social media algorithms.

Golbeck spoke to Maryland Today about what the internet of the future could look like:

The metaverse seems to be a big deal, but what is it, actually?
The idea of a metaverse has been around for years. Facebook didn’t just develop it, and it wouldn’t be a Facebook product, like Instagram. They’re one company that’s part of it. What it actually is, is still somewhat undefined; you could possibly see it interacting with the real world through augmented reality, like with the old Google Glass, with a visual overlay on the real world providing information as you walked around. Where Facebook is really focusing is a virtual space. Most of us have seen or maybe tried the Oculus virtual reality goggles—Facebook owns Oculus, and that seems to be their vision of how you experience the metaverse.

What would you actually see wearing the goggles? A cartoon world, or photorealistic?
I think it will be a blend. As with many online experiences, a lot of how it looks will depend on your hardware. It’s not going to be a platform run by a single corporation or an app like (online 3D virtual world) Second Life. That would suggest that you've got some more heterogeneity to how it looks and how it works. So theoretically, you could walk from something built by one company or organization to another, and the world would completely change.

Does Facebook’s interest make the metaverse more likely to take hold?
Facebook is definitely going to pour a lot of money into it, and they have access to a big user base, so yes. If you want to see the metaverse realized in a way where it features a whole lot of interesting stuff going on, and is a place you can interact with people, this is good for that. But Facebook tries a lot of things people don’t want, and I’ve wondered if this is a solution in search of a problem. Are people really clamoring en masse to leave the real world behind? I’m not so sure they are.

Why is Facebook betting so much on this, then?
After all the issues they’ve had, Facebook wants to reestablish the reputation that they had originally, which is someone who's coming along and doing really innovative new stuff that makes the world a better place, like something that helps us maintain relationships with people we might have lost touch with. I don’t have any insider knowledge of what goes on in Facebook, but I think there must be intense pressure to know what the next big thing is going to be and stay out in front of it.

How could this go bad?
I think all the problems Facebook has had with people using its platform for bad ends will be intensified in a metaverse application, because a lot of what goes on at Facebook these days is just trying to manage the bad stuff. There’s a lot of talk about the anti-vax stuff and the insurrection-related stuff, but there’s also child porn and many other things that don’t get a lot of attention, and I have to say, Facebook does a really good job stopping a lot of that content, and their moderators suffer for it. 

The problem for the metaverse is that we have technology that can automatically flag text or images that might have child porn or certain kinds of violence, but we don’t know how to manage this virtual world space. That means it will probably be effectively unregulated for a while. You’ll have a lot of techie people who want to try new things there, and that will include some jerks. So I don’t think that the “Facebook is evil” idea they’re dealing with is going to go away.

What could be good?
I went to a National Science Foundation review panel that was held in Second Life about five years ago, and it was great. You could talk over each other in a way much more natural than on Zoom, and you had visual cues that helped communication too. Because you have a visual avatar, you don’t have to be on camera—you don’t have to look at your stupid face all day.

So just because I don’t really think people are going to want to spend their lives in virtual reality doesn’t mean there aren’t some good uses for this, like better ways of doing telework. I think if Facebook overlooks that aspect, they’re missing an opportunity. But I think they have a bigger, more encompassing vision than just a better Zoom. I just don’t think it will work.

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College of Information Studies

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