Metaverse: Dreams of virtual consumers flocking to digital worlds come crashing down – Laura Waddell

Disney is the latest entertainment giant to reverse its bet on the Metaverse, laying off the division it proudly announced in 2021.

Back then, since-replaced chief executive Bob Chapek boasted “the Walt Disney Company has a long track record as an early adopter in the use of technology to enhance the entertainment experience”. They’re now a flagship deserter of the Metaverse concept, the U-turn coming after Microsoft closed its own stumbling AltspaceVR platform.

Kali Hays, writing for Business Insider in March, observed “about a year ago, Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg couldn't stop talking about the metaverse, saying it was no less than the future of his entire company. He renamed the company in honor of these ambitions. Today, it's a relative blip when he speaks publicly.” Indeed, the whole premise has seemed irredeemably cursed since those unforgettably dorky images of ‘Metaverse Zuckerberg’ were released, bearing resemblance, many pointed out, and not in a complimentary way, to early-gen video game animation. The virtual world of the future looked surprisingly retrogressive and decidedly unimpressive to a viewing public by now well used to sophisticated visuals.

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Back then, mocking public reaction fixated on why Zuckerberg’s gormless avatar had no legs. He answered the question flippantly during a Meta Connect VR conference: “Seriously, legs are hard.” Virtual reality might be a different beast, but animators draughting by hand managed 14 dwarf legs, as well as the two under Snow White’s long skirts, back in 1937. Legs would be coming soon, the company was later pushed to announce. But legs were just a symbol. What critics had really been pointing out was the unappealing styling of the platform, which made any limitation glaring. The farce was, by anyone’s estimation, a poor sell of the concept, especially from a company with a track record of disrupting how we use the internet.

Cynics might wonder whether the obsessive interest taken in the project by the company once known as Facebook was an effort to distance itself from whistleblowing and bad press around data harnessing, national security, teen mental health, PTSD-stricken content moderators and Zuckerberg’s high-profile Senate grilling. The rush to make daily life even more virtual than it already is – the concept is always presented as a more seamless transition between physical and digital life – suggests grim, long-term projections of human behaviour in a climate change-stricken world.

But what has always confused me is that the Metaverse seems to spell out explicitly and clunkily what social media has already done by stealth, which is to convince great swathes of Earth’s population to voluntarily funnel great reams of their socialising, commerce, business, information-gathering, ego-bolstering, and understanding of the world through data-gathering corporations’ channels.

At best, the whole thing has always seemed gimmicky; just the latest virtual reality premise not to pan out beyond pipe dreams, met fundamentally with a big old shrug by the consumer. At worst, the further merging of physical and virtual existence is suffocatingly dystopian. Spoiling the illusion about how blurred they wish the lines to really be doesn’t jive either with the growing instinct to unplug, as awareness of social media addiction and its negative impact on mental health grows. The prospect of immersing oneself even further into some corporation-owned reality, whether or not a cartoon mouse beckons us in, could not be less appealing.



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