The Metaverse and the Death of Text
Ah, the metaverse — the buzzword no one can stop using since Mark Zuckerberg’s keynote at Connect a few weeks ago. Coverage after the fact has ranged from the dystopian to the dismissive, with people lining up to either say it portends the death of humanity or is to be written off as the new version of Second Life. But the truth, as it often does, lies somewhere in the middle of those two poles, and perhaps represents the logical end to a shift we’ve been seeing for quite some time now — the death of text.
Reading all this metaverse commentary reminded me of a talk of the future of augmented reality I gave at Coca-Cola a few years ago. I dug out my old deck and have to give myself a little pat on the back for being so prescient. Even though the world I envisioned was driven primarily by smart glasses, much of it aligns with a potential vision for the metaverse that is driven by voice and images, not text.
This is not to say that we will never read books in the future, nor write articles like this one. But we’ve already seen a generational shift away from reading to watching in terms of consumption, and another shift from one way communication of information to a back and forth. For instance, it is often harder to find a step by step written guide to a task than to find a YouTube video where you can watch and learn — depending on how you process information, this could be beneficial or upsetting. And younger folks likely have no memory of getting the news from the TV or the newspaper, with little to no practical ability to respond with your opinion or own set of facts. Now almost everything is an exchange, with all the attendant upsides of letting marginalized communities have a bigger platform and downsides of letting any idiot declare themselves a health expert.
So what does this mean for the future of the metaverse? For one, it means we’ll be talking more and typing less. If we interact as avatars, we’ll communicate with our voices, and there are several benefits to that. For one, the bot armies that have taken over Twitter will be a lot harder to port into the new reality — mom of two from Alabama Karen, who just loves liberty, won’t be all that believable when she starts speaking with a heavy Ukrainian accent. And hearing someone’s voice might make you more empathetic and less likely to simply hide behind words on a screen.
This is also a huge boon for people who are functionally illiterate, have trouble reading due to dyslexia,or who speak a second language and find it easier to speak rather than write in that language. First world nations will likely have more access to technology for the foreseeable future, but once the metaverse becomes as widely accessible as smartphones, then it opens up a whole new set of possibilities.
The metaverse will also usher in an image first future, something that we’ve seen play out in harmless ways (people of all generations are using emojis now) and harmful ways as well (every media company that laid off their reporters to pivot to video and failed miserably). But the younger generation is very image conscious, albeit in a more open way than previous ones. Ideally people will create avatars that look like them, but they can also customize to their heart’s content, making the metaverse a safe space for people struggling with their identities, or wanting to feel safe in their own (virtual) bodies.
Ultimately, no one knows where the metaverse will go, but it will evolve and change as we progress. I’m always reminded of an interview David Letterman did with Bill Gates in where he questioned the need for the internet and couldn’t see how it would replace his subscriptions to British racing magazines and calls to auto-racing hotlines, and ends with him talking about “troubled loner chat rooms” (ok, maybe he was spot on there). The internet evolved in many directions, and the metaverse will do the same.