Exploring the Metaverse

With the world what it is these days, you can see why people might be itching for an alternate reality—a way to reboot the system and start fresh. That’s the appeal of virtual realms: They’re places where power can be inverted, disappointments escaped, and capitalist inequities left behind for something more exciting, malleable, and meaningful.

It’s no wonder, then, that online universes like Fortnite and Roblox currently attract nearly 400 million users, and others like Decentraland and the Sandbox are growing rapidly. The market for them will soon be worth more than $1 trillion, estimates show. Facebook has changed its name to Meta to signal its belief in a virtual future. Microsoft is preparing for workplaces populated by digital avatars. Fashion brands from Nike to Gucci are designing clothes and accessories for the metaverse. JP Morgan and Samsung have set up shop in Decentraland. On Roblox players can operate their own Forever 21 stores and even sell their own designs in them. Many companies are making big bets on the metaverse (even if most people still aren’t quite sure what it is).

Three new books help explain why. Navigating the Metaverse, by Cathy Hackl, Dirk Lueth, and Tommaso Di Bartolo; The Metaverse Handbook, by QuHarrison Terry and Scott Keeney; and Step into the Metaverse, by Mark van Rijmenam, all set themselves up as Lonely Planet guides to the digital frontier.

While definitions of it vary, here are some basics about the metaverse: It’s actually many metaverses, or digital spaces, which typically are decentralized, incorporate augmented and virtual reality, store information on blockchain, and allow users to own digital goods. So like “the internet,” the term “the metaverse” describes a sprawling network of sites and spaces.

In practice the metaverse offers a new way to be online, with new markets and products. In their book, Hackl, Lueth, and Di Bartolo state that it presents three paradigm shifts:

1. Experience: People don’t just want to consume. It’s far more engaging to have gamified, contextual experiences.

2. Identity: People value their digital persona and want to carry it with them across the metaverse and even into the real world.

3. Ownership: Wherever people choose to spend their time, they want skin in the game.

In other words the endgame is to have a unified digital identity on blockchain—an identity that’s the same whether you’re signing in to your work computer or gaming at night. It will contain the keys to your crypto, the NFTs you bought for your digital house in Decentraland, and all your other important data. In the metaverse you’re less a user than you are a member.

This opens a whole new world of possibilities. Terry and Keeney point to Roblox as an example of what’s to come. On it players design games and spaces, and people gather for events in a way that they can’t on social media sites. Keeney (who is also known as “DJ Skee”) worked with Paris Hilton to build Paris World on Roblox, where she threw a New Year’s Eve celebration that drew more attendees than Times Square’s did. “This is the future of partying,” she tells the authors.

What’s most striking about the metaverse (and its cousin, Web3) is the emphasis on ownership. Users can have a stake in almost anything; they can vote on decisions about the communities they belong to and the apps they use, make and sell NFTs, and even get paid for playing games in decentralized apps (dApps) that run on peer-to-peer networks rather than on servers. User ownership is a real revolution because it creates a new economy. The best version of the metaverse, says van Rijmenam, will liberate users, allowing them to easily move communities and digital goods from platform to platform—to, say, take a Facebook group to Roblox, and then transfer a piece of art made there over to Fortnite. In this vision, users can monetize their digital assets, selling, renting, or even borrowing against them.

The message, it seems, is that while users got the short end of the stick on the old web, where they traded their data for free search engines and social media platforms, they (or, rather, the architects of this new web) are renegotiating that deal. “Play becomes labor that produces assets worth something within that dApp (or even in the broader metaverse),” write Hackl, Lueth, and Di Bartolo. That might involve creating monsters in the game Axie Infinity and selling them to other players or earning tokens with them, freelancing as a brand ambassador in Decentraland, or hawking digital art or avatar gear. Instead of the dopamine hit of likes, the rewards of online life come in cold, hard crypto.

It’s an exciting pitch—because the old web leaves a lot to be desired. The ad-based model makes users’ information the product; a few giant companies have so much power that they’re almost impossible to regulate; and the endless drive for engagement promotes divisive content, conspiracy theories, and trolling. All of which makes spending time on social media seem like a light vice: I for one talk about Twitter as if it’s a casual smoking habit I can’t give up. An alternative that could break up some of the entrenched power and reinvigorate the web should be welcome news.

Yet I can’t help seeing the dystopian side of this future. Work isn’t becoming play; play is becoming work. It feels as if instead of offering digital liberation and ownership, the metaverse is offering more responsibilities without a promotion. Do I want to bring everything I do in my free time to work with my avatar, dragging all my other interests and relationships along with me? Do I want to turn my leisure activity into a small business? And do I want to spend even more of my life online? Or have my online life supplant my humble one in the physical world?

Those are exactly the kinds of quandaries that characters work to escape in books, TV shows, and movies about virtual reality, from Neal Stephenson’s 1992 sci-fi classic Snow Crash (which coined the term “metaverse”) to the Netflix series Black Mirror.

Is the metaverse our future? Companies like Meta and Microsoft seem to think so, though their virtual worlds remain closed rather than the open ideal. There’s no doubt that excitement, money, and momentum are pushing us to some new form of digital reality. One way or another, it will reflect the desires of its user base, be they entrepreneurship, escape, or convenience. Dystopia is one risk. Another is disappointment: We dream of the metaverse but end up with a mall.

A version of this article appeared in the July–August 2022 issue of Harvard Business Review.