Kirk Klasson

Metaverse Schmetaverse

Back in 2007, in the land rush to social media marketing, I was asked to explore Second Life as a potential marketing venue for a B2B value proposition. And the only way one could explore such a medium was to “immerse” oneself, travel through its landscapes, meet its denizens and interrogate the avatars that “peopled” its places. Word was that savvy marketing players from very large and prestigious companies were about to take a major stake in the Second Life ecosystem, whatever that meant. After three weeks of meeting avatars of dubious human-bird-fish-raccoon genetics with even more suspicious character, background and motivation and exploring interior, exterior and extraterrestrial venues and testing bids for placement build outs, it was decided that a wait and see approach might prove prudent. I hear that Second Life is still around, although I haven’t really looked, and it remains to this day, in number of active users, ersatz economics and marketing prowess, essentially what it was back in 2007.

Thirteen years later and now all the cool kids are talking about the next new thing called the metaverse, an immersive 3-D internet multi-verse of networked XR, VR and AR. A vision so compelling that a new land rush has ensued and Facebook, having failed to achieve much of anything with Oculus (see Waking the Nueromorphic – February, 2018), has decided to burn the boats, and lay claim as the heir apparent to the metaverse empire, even while the bones of Magic Leap lie bleaching neath its mangroves. Although my history is a little hazy, not that I was ever any good at it, I seem to recall that most conquistadors who burned their boats died where they landed or somewhere near by.

By most accounts, the impetus behind the enthusiasm for the metaverse has little if anything to do with Facebook, social spaces like Uhive aside, and lots to do with gamers, the mole-rat inhabitants of windowless dens whose only raison d’etre is to make it to the next level. In fact, the current odds on favorite to win the metaverse laurel is Roblox, a proto-game building facility whose primary value proposition seems to be selling picks and shovels to the metaverse gold rush, maybe there will be a winner but in the meantime there are numerous suckers; PT Barnum had his moments. But it is important to understand the demographic that drives the demand for virtual worlds.


Scott Galloway, a professor of marketing at NYU’s Stern School once said, and I paraphrase loosely and liberally, that all consumer tech is based on whether or not the technology that you subscribe to will help you get laid. Think about that for a minute. It’s a status thing. The phone you use. The watch you wear. The buds in your ear. What segment of the population is obsessed with getting laid? One to ten years old? Ten to fifteen? Fifteen to twenty? Or thirty five to 80? If you haven’t been laid by thirty five you are probably a gamer. Now I ask you, who would want to do a gamer? Before you lose it, rendered to its primitives, the demographic we are talking about is newly post pubescent South Korean males. Relatively rich in time with little to do with what money they have but lacking in social skills. Now extrapolate that to most other countries and cultures and eventually you will end up with Mark Zuckerberg. And, coincidentally, it turns out that most of these folks as they get a little older still inhabit Second Life.

The next new Chautauqua for the metaverse, the compelling reason that everyone will insist on participating, apart from being cool (see The Perils of Being Cool – July, 2012), is its immediate or latent entertainment value. Several of the “notable” events that have been virtually produced and subscribed to have been large, formerly in-person, music or pageant moments virtualized by Covid related concerns. Which begs the question that if this is the future of entertainment then why isn’t Disney, Netflix and Tencent all over it? Well, Tencent is already pretty much all over it. A subsidiary value of these events is the social status such technological participation conveys upon those who subscribe. It is now taken as an article of faith by consumer marketers that accessorizing through brand affiliation is an important means to achieve social differentiation. To post pubescent gamers this means that if you want to get laid you have to wear the right watch while participating at the right virtual music venue. Not that accessorizing in this manner will actually make a difference, it only matters that you think it will. But as a marketable cohort, this particular segment has its own unique disadvantages, not the least of which is that it’s perishable and, if not constantly refreshed, ages out all on its own.

So, leaving aside for the moment the augmented portion of reality virtualization, the platform revenue opportunities from the metaverse phenomena appear to be enormous. There are the underlying technologies, consumer devices and delivery systems, proprietary content, ancillary merchandizing and product placement marketing not to mention the mountains of user data that can be mined from fanatic participants to determine future revenue streams. No wonder Facebook wants in, along with Microsoft, Adobe, Activision and a host of other established and emerging technology players.

There are, however, a few notable caveats these players might want consider. First, as a cohort, post pubescent gaming males in general do not posses a lot of disposable income which means that for the metaverse to succeed it will have to find newer patrons who want different immersible experiences perhaps something more akin to reality TV and these experiences may not scale. Next, serious marketing studies such one published in 2018 entitled “The Status Signals Paradox” seems to show that ostentatious displays of status, virtual or otherwise, do not engender feelings of friendship and affection in others. Quite the opposite. People who make public displays of status through brand affiliation are ofter considered assholes. Which might explain why a colleague of mine who loved nothing more than tooling around in his BMW 750 couldn’t understand why so many people gave him the finger.

But there is a darker more sinister side of the metaverse. Thus far, as an imaginary participant in an imaginary world, players can conduct themselves in a largely consequence-free manner. There may be rules that shape the boundaries of the game but within those boundaries there are no pre-proscibed ethics, manners or morality that one must adhere to. Some communities might rate their participants but rarely to the point of termination and expulsion, in which case the player can assume a new alias, new persona, new avatar and move on. And if you think that AI has an ethics problem, the metaverse is largely a morality-free environment; aggression, intimidation, murder, mayhem, casual sexual innuendo and explicit sexual engagement are not only permitted they are at the very root of its entertainment value.

But now, in our new post Covid society, the rules of the metaverse have loosed their surly techno-bonds and taken their rightful place as the very basis of human civility. There hasn’t been a day in the last six months where the news isn’t replete with stories of outright assassination, road rage and car jacking ending in murder and the constant carnage of toddlers murdered on their own front porch. Want to catch a caged mixed martial arts match? Book a flight on Spirit Airlines. Want to watch your neighbor get gunned down? Attend a barbecue. Want to become embroiled in an unexpected assault and battery? Try your local Papa Gino’s. Want to be sexually assaulted in broad daylight? Walk through a homeless shanty town or stand on a New York City subway platform. Want to be mugged and beaten to an inch of your life? Fill up your gas tank after 7PM. And what do all these acts of violence have in common? For the individuals who commit them, they are largely consequence-free, they are no longer real, they are merely ephemeral figments of your imagination. Just like the metaverse.

Recently, the leaders of the technical community have been hyping the metaverse like a two-hundred eighty pound trucker holed up in his rig outside Des Moines humping Jessica Rabbit’s sister in a latex tactile body suit and a high def, 3-D headset from Samsung. They’ll tell you all about the progress that’s been made since Second Life. About the customizable proprietary content and AI based behavioral interaction modifications. That the ersatz sex and ersatz violence and ersatz economy and ersatz marketing has been rendered so much more compelling by the malleable primitives and graphic processor speeds to the point where you won’t even know it’s not real.

Here’s a thought.

If you want a truly immersive experience, try reality. Choose reality. Make the here and now where you want to be. Treat strangers and neighbors with dignity as you would expect them to treat you. Embrace the gravity of the consequences that come from living life deliberately. Be human.

‘Cause livin’ in the Thunderdome ain’t all that it’s cracked up to be.


Graphic courtesy of SuZQ Art and Images all other images, statistics, illustrations and citations, etc. derived and included under fair use/royalty free provisions.

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