In the 1992 sci-fi dystopia Snow Crash, the author Neal Stephenson imagined a bleak 21st century where the collapse of the global economy had seen governments fall and their power replaced by a few giant businesses. The book is notable for prescience, anticipating the adoption of what was then seen as outlandish technologies like the wireless internet, cryptocurrencies and smartphones, as well as the rise of the gig economy. But it is the book’s prophetic vision of “the metaverse” that has revived interest in the work.
That is because Stephenson described the online virtual reality experience that almost every tech giant today wishes to commercially exploit. Last October, Microsoft announced that users of its Teams online meetings app would be able to turn themselves into avatars – the term Stephenson popularised in Snow Crash – to encourage users into virtual interaction. Days later Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder, rebranded his company as Meta, with a focus on the potential for virtual worlds.
Mr Zuckerberg wants to convince the world that he has found new ways to make money – a quest that has become more urgent since last week it was revealed that the company’s user base may not just have plateaued but is starting to decline. This is in part because many Apple iPhone owners choose to opt out of being tracked by applications like Facebook and younger people prefer to spend time on the Chinese-owned social media network TikTok. Facebook users’ engagement provides the personal data used to target advertising. Mr Zuckerberg’s Meta rebrand is meant to signal that he will improve his firm’s targeting and measurement techniques – and extract more revenue from its users.
However, the metaverse may not be the future. The corporate version of social media has been blamed, with some justification, for rotting democracy from within. Because Facebook, Twitter and YouTube loom so large in the public imagination, there exists a “blind spot”, suggests computer scientist Ethan Zuckerman, for alternative models. Yet they are here. Tim Berners-Lee, the web’s inventor, wants to wrest power back from big tech and put people in control of their personal data.
Other decentralised platforms – such as Mastodon – make it possible to create online communities with different rules. Progressive Twitter users in India switched in 2019 to mstdn.social after a supporter was suspended. However, the biggest decentralised social network is Gab, which serves de-platformed rightwing extremists. There are also social media platforms built around cryptocurrency/blockchain capitalism, which currently has a prohibitively large carbon footprint.
Contributors to such sites are typically rewarded with tokens, theoretically enabling high-quality content to be rewarded. However, this model has its downsides: notably that voting power is proportional to currency holdings. When Steemit, one of the original crypto-sites, was bought out, its new owner used his market power to move it his own blockchain system – precipitating a walkout by users.
Mr Zuckerman’s wish is for “lots more social networks” that are explicitly governed by the communities who are working with them and offer tools that give more control over what is seen and how it is seen. He thinks that a period of fertile creativity may produce a new, more cooperative form of social media. One hopes he is right.