Good news about the "Metaverse": it's going to fail

(Content warnings: BDSM, dronification/hypnokink, furry kink, racism, Nazis. Thankfully not all within the same context.)

If you're in any way interested in the VR/AR space-- and for all its flaws, I am-- then you've almost certainly heard about the Metaverse. You might not know what it /is/, exactly, and that's entirely fair, because it doesn't really exist yet. But from what's been demoed so far, it seems to be a bunch of virtual spaces, similar to VRChat or Second Life, designed to help stave off the sense of isolation created by the COVID-19 pandemic. By allowing virtual avatars to come together in virtual parks, boardrooms and wedding chapels to do the exact same things we do in the real world, but with more lag, more motion sickness and the possibility of getting disconnected during your best friend's nuptuals, Mark Zuckerberg and cronies believe that they'll be leading the third web revolution-- no doubt with a hefty side of NFT scams, ads, and advanced data collection from all those VR trackers.

"Now hold up, Cobalt," I hear you say. "This sounds overly cynical. Didn't you say you were interested in VR?" And I am. But the drawbacks of the technology are also huge-- the expense, the space required, the aforementioned motion sickness. To have any sort of impact, the technology has to give us things we can't get anywhere else; things that aren't just 1:1 analogs to reality.

Certainly, there are people out there who are passionate enough about VR that they'll shell out hundreds of dollars and give themselves migraines to sit in a virtual meeting room, with a virtual whiteboard and four virtual white walls, doing the exact same things they could do over a Zoom call. And the fact that they're the ones running this show demonstrates that we, the weirdo creatives of the world, don't have much to fear from Zuckerberg or his Metaverse.

For the Metaverse to have any value to the majority, it's going to need creativity. The kind of creativity that makes it worthwhile to push through the lag, the headaches, and all the other teething troubles. The kind of creativity that makes people drop money on a VR set and a computer that can handle it. The kind that makes you come out of that virtual world feeling like you gained something from being there.

Plenty of people have already commented that the Metaverse tech demos look ugly and boring compared to the virtual worlds we already have. Second Life was created in 2003 (almost 20 years ago-- can you believe that?). I remember playing Second Life when it first came out, and even its oldest, crunchiest, lowest-poly avatars looked as good as, or better than, the Meta stuff. But the beauty of SL was that you didn't have to stick to their pregenerated avatars, or a bunch of character-creation sliders. You could make your own stuff. And all the good stuff in SL was user-made stuff. Nobody hung out on Orientation Island; they made their own virtual worlds, their own items and avatars, and a robust digital economy began to thrive.

"A robust digital economy!" You can practically hear the crypto fans rubbing their hands together now. But that economy was, and is, built off the kind of creativity that would send the metabros scuttling back into their doomsday bunkers. It was about weirdness, and lots of it: at the height of my interest in SL, the biggest trend was "neko" gear, allowing people to add ears, tails, and other catlike features to their avatar, which were then controlled by in-game commands. There was also a ton of kinky sex: BDSM warehouses, equippable horse cocks, collars that let another avatar control yours. I once explored a robotification factory where you could lay your character down on a conveyor belt, and have them guided through the process of being turned into a mindless hypno-drone, with the assistance of live technicians roleplayed by other players. (Sadly, no one was on duty at the time.)

These creations were clear labours of love, built on consent (as the collar-wearer, you could always take back permissions from the person controlling you), made by people who actually wanted to use them and cared about the outcome. Even if the Metafolks were to Zuck it up and accept that people might want to do adult things online-- a move that is unlikely, with large companies like Apple removing adult apps from their stores and another new sexual censorship bill making the rounds-- they'd still have to contend with the fact that kinksters and creatives don't like corporate restrictions. It's hard to imagine anyone handing over the keys to their digital chastity to the Metaverse, even if they were permitted to build them.

And the permission to build freely isn't guaranteed. More likely, the Metaverse will be a walled garden, with either character-creation sliders or pre-bought avatars, or maybe, at best, the limited ability to upload your own work-- as long as you make it with Meta's tools, in Meta's proprietary file format, and sign the rights over to them. Artists aren't going to fall for that. And the few who might will be the same people you see now making shitty racist monkeys (yes, the monkeys are racist-- see the Gordon Goner link below), with less flair and inspiration than seen in most Picrews. (Picrew is not racist, though people could sure stand to offer more dark skin tones in their generators.) Maybe Meta can rope a few Nazifurs into working for them, but doing so would guarantee they'll be shunned by anyone with taste or sense.

Creativity requires heart. That's something that Zuckerberg and the NFT lords clearly lack. Best of all, it's something that money can't buy. By saying this stuff, I'm not helping Meta out; they just can't do what's needed. Those with the kind of hearts that forge great art will never be content within virtual walled gardens, run by crypto barons destroying the environment. We don't want ads in our faces and our retinal tracking data being sent off to New Facebook. We'll always be looking for ways to take and break those technologies, to reverse engineer them and open-source them and make them work to our own advantage, not for our corporate overlords.

Without those creative minds and hearts, the Metaverse is doomed. Good. Long live the alternatives.