If nothing else, the Metaverse is already creating work for futurists to posit about how consumers will behave when we spend every waking hour strapped to VR headsets.
For those wanting a glimpse of how we’ll dress in cyberspace, look no further than Screen Wear, an article by Virtue Worldwide, Vice Media’s creative agency. He has previously reported on other defining topics for the time, such as Animal Crossing, the “digital renaissance” and the “collective awakening” of Gen Z.
Screenwear itself is a massive 96-page analysis of the industry that promises to “go beyond statistics and inner culture” and move to “culture 3.0”.
Ultimately, what it does is expose the lingering ambiguity about what the metaverse actually means — despite the massive amounts of money put into the projects — and the historical amnesia it took to make it look new.
Before we get to the report itself, take a look at the NFT collection launched next to it. My personal favorite is the Buckaclava, a bucket/balaclava that represents “total creative freedom without physical limitations” while being an easy, if not very flattering, combination to create in the real world.
The analysis itself is based on a survey of 3,000 respondents, as well as interviews with experts, including artists and NFT creators (some of whom could speculate that they have a vested interest in developing the industry).
We first encountered a small bump with its “brief history of the future” (which is really just a list of digital “things” and science fiction).
Famously, nothing else relevant to the intersection of online culture and the intersection of fashion launched between 1992 and 2009. Nothing. No sausage bachelor.
The decision to include Bitcoin and Ethereum in the category in a “future” story also looks more perilous as the major crypto crash of 2022 continues (at least Terra didn’t make the list).
But you may say that history is old-fashioned. Virtue’s research on responses to the word “metaverse” looks more promising (ignore the 200% figure: respondents could choose multiple items).
But while the report says that 83% of people had a “positive perception”, the largest category was “curious” (according to 50% of all respondents). Polysemy is a tricky business – I may be curious if my dog emptied the bin; I am not positive about it.
Perhaps more telling is the fact that less than half said they were unequivocally excited or inspired by the word ‘metaverse’ and that at least a fifth of respondents expressed displeasure.
My own enduring metaverse experience was a press conference before the Australian Open kicked off in Decentraland, a digital world where Virtue’s story began before the Trump presidency.
Unfortunately, seven years of work failed to fix the connectivity issues, forcing the Q&A of the future on Google Hangouts to take place without videos. I’d say that satisfied my curiosity for now.
At this point, you might be wondering how Virtue defines metaverse, a notoriously vague term. The answer appears (sort of) a few slides later:
The real metaverse seems to be what we’ve always wanted. Sent a bunny-eared selfie? You had a metaverse experience. Did you waste hours on Runescape as a kid? You had a metaverse experience. You have thrown your savings into dogecoin? That’s right, you’ve had a metaverse experience (and you’re probably angry).
virtue did give more than one definition when contacting:
In general, we like to think of the metaverse as a shared fantasy – an altruistic illusion, if you will – greater than the sum of its parts (crypto, XR, gaming) and basically about bringing excitement back to an internet that most people have become weary in recent years.
So it’s cleaned up.
Now that we know the metaverse is a seemingly meaningless term for “the things we love online,” we can move on to how the report handles digital identity, which he said was its biggest selling point: virtual fashion.
On the surface it looks more like solid ground. People have been using virtual worlds to explore gender, race and sexuality for decades, often overturning the limitations of platform design. See Julian Dibbell’s 1993 article Rape in Cyberspace of Bonnie Nardi My Life as a Night Elf Priest for Good or Evil.
But to sell the “new” era of metaverses, this story must be cast aside in favor of breathless speculation.
“Can you be a body that is not yours? Can you belong to an ethnic group that is not your own? asks an expert, raising questions to which the answer has been “YES” since the late 20th century.
And then we slide into the ‘digital self’ discourse, which suggests a separation between virtual and physical identities, rather than a single, complex whole. This fallacy of “digital dualism” was described as early as 2011 by Snap sociologist Nathan Jurgenson (Tim Bradshaw interviewed him here in 2019).
Therein lies the great waste of too much “metaverse talk” that would rather focus on selling a utopian future than wondering if the new verses will be better than what we have now.
If you want to tell brands that kids will spend half their lives in Bored Punk Kitty Land, old-fashioned cyberpunk thinking isn’t enough.