Is it the metaverse or a metaverse?
On Jan. 18, 2022, Brian X. Chen of The New York Times asked the question, “What’s All the Hype About the Metaverse?” In the article, Chen used the term “the metaverse” fourteen times and asked such questions as “What is the metaverse, anyway?” and “Does the metaverse already exist in gaming?” In contrast, Chen used the term “a metaverse” only two times. Earlier that same month, Harvard Business Review published the article “How Brands Can Enter the Metaverse,” in which Janet Balis used the term “the metaverse” twenty-four times, but referred to a metaverse only once.
This grammatical trend repeats regardless of the medium.Authors and experts repeatedly use the term “the metaverse” rather than “a metaverse” again and again and again—ad nauseum—when discussing metaverse concepts. Companies like Meta, not surprisingly, lean into this grammatical trend, declaring that the “next evolution of social connection” will revolve around “[t]he metaverse.” But why has this particular article (i.e., the) become so pervasively associated with metaverse discussions? Why theorize about a digital frontier with such singular specificity?
One could argue that this linguistic preference originates from the word’s creator. In the fiction novel Snow Crash, Neil Stephenson coined the term “Metaverse” as the label for a proper-noun place: the Metaverse. It was, essentially, a digital environment into which users could project digital versions of themselves. And if users felt so inclined, they could rent virtual commercial real estate from the one multimedia company in charge of handling the leasing of digital plots. The Metaverse, according to Stephenson, was a particular place—a noun unlike any other—so using “the” made sense.
But we don’t live in Stephenson’s novel. No monopolistic entity gatekeeps real estate rights within, or even access to, anything resembling Stephenson’s Metaverse vision. Yet, even in this infantile stage of exploring metaverse concepts, so many individuals use the article “the” rather than “a” to modify the noun “metaverse.” Grammatically speaking, this injects inherent limitations into metaverse discussions, because it implies that there exists a singular, definite metaverse. Not a metaverse among a group of meteverses, but the metaverse—a singularity.
And this begs the question: is it a singularity? Are we correct in envisioning a future in which one metaverse (i.e., the metaverse) dominates the digital landscape? Looking at the ubiquitous use of the term “the metaverse,” one could easily be convinced into thinking that, yes, a singularity is likely. However, a brief examination of how various metaverse stakeholders describe “the metaverse” reveals an unclear, competitive undercurrent to the term.
In April of 2021, Epic raised one billion dollars to support, in part, their “vision for . . . the Metaverse,” which seems to involve “building connected social experiences” in their games. Later that year, Microsoft described “the metaverse” much like Stephenson’s Metaverse: a “place” in which our digital selves can attend work meetings, explore showroom items, and more. Meta also aligned with this place-based vision, describing “the metaverse” as an all-encompassing experience in which “you socialize, learn, collaborate, and play.” Still others point to video games like Roblox, Animal Crossing, and Fortnite as early examples of the metaverse—despite these being little more than online games, disconnected from each other and with differing degrees of user-generated content.
These are, in truth, individualized visions for “the metaverse.” Each focuses on a sense of connectivity, but the extent of that connectivity varies drastically depending on the speaker. Microsoft and Meta envision the metaverse as a monolithic virtual space, much like Stephenson’s Metaverse, in which people live, work, shop, eat, and experience the full richness of life in a world without boundaries. Epic conceptualizes the metaverse as a means of supporting interconnective social experiences within their already-existing video game properties. Then others shrink the scope even further by rebranding online games like Roblox or Animal Crossing as self-contained metaverses. Each vision seeks to convince the audience that theirs is the correct one: the alpha metaverse to which we should strive. But besides the vague idea of connectivity, these varying concepts of “the metaverse” appear more like singular extensions of their respective corporate brands. Microsoft and Meta, as massive players in the digital market, envision an all-encompassing metaverse, whereas Epic, which focuses on engaging users via video games, envisions the metaverse as a social outgrowth of their gaming platform.
The point being, despite the frequent agreement in using the word “the” in conjunction with “metaverse,” the characteristics and specifics of “the metaverse” lose focus beyond the idea of a heightened form of connectivity. Is the metaverse a self-contained game environment, like Roblox or Animal Crossing, in which the connectivity is insular to the particular product? Is it a social extension of a gaming platform, in which players can interact regardless of the game being played on the platform? Or is it something larger—an all-encompassing space in which activities beyond gaming take place?
Or perhaps these questions distract from a more important one: do we truly believe there will only be one form of “the metaverse?” The current language trend indicates that authors and experts, either consciously or unconsciously, envision “the” metaverse, alone and monolithic. But if that is true—if there is a fabled digital frontier unlike any other—the inevitable question is, why is there only one? And more importantly, who controls it?
In Stephenson’s novel, the Metaverse was a singularity rife with corporate influence. Access to the Metaverse was primarily regulated by a telecommunications monopoly, and a similarly monopolistic multimedia group owned the rights to sell virtual real estate. The Metaverse was not a bastion of democratic freedoms; it was a digital space entwined with capitalistic intent. We already see similar corporate interest from companies like Epic, Meta, and Microsoft, which are all pouring untold funds into the race to create the first iteration of “the metaverse.” And if we accept the notion that there will exist only one metaverse, as our language around the concept seems to indicate, then the stakes of this race could not be higher. The first to create the metaverse is the first to instill their rules and ideals into the framework of what some are calling the next evolution of the Internet.
So I ask again: why accept this notion of a singular metaverse? Why use language insinuating a future in which only one metaverse exists, as if Stephenson’s work were prophetic rather than fictional? Why not broaden our imagination—grow beyond the fiction from which the term sprung—to envision a world in which metaverses exist distinct and apart from each other? Not the metaverse, limited in scope and potentially victim to corporate digital colonialism, but rather a metaverse among a multitude of metaverses, each with varying core interests and identities as plentiful as the human experience. This way, no single actor or group of actors can dominate (and therefore dictate the rules governing) this new digital frontier.
Notably, Balis stated that the use of term “the metaverse” may be a misnomer, because “[e]ach entity that creates a virtual world does so with its own access, membership, monetization rights, and formats of creative expression, so the business and technical specifications vary widely.” Despite this, Balis continues to use the term “the metaverse” throughout the article.
See, e.g., SXSW’s Schedule for 2022.
See, e.g., Paul Tassi, Interest In NFTs And The Metaverse Is Falling Fast, Forbes; Andy MacMillan, Reimagining customer experience in the metaverse, Fast Company; Ezra Reguerra, The future of work: Companies open offices in the metaverse, Cointelegraph; Shamani Joshi, The Metaverse, Explained for People Who Still Don’t Get It, Vice.