Is the “metaverse” the new Eldorado as Facebook claims?

Facebook but also Alibaba and Tencent launch themselves into the race for the “metaverse” by investing several million dollars. While the concept of the metaverse is not recent, the commercial use of this digital world has for 30 years been experiencing as regular evidence as its failures. Can the new immersive technologies transform this concept into a sustainable economic reality?

The term metaverse was proposed by Neal Stephenson in his 1992 book Snow fall, the author himself defines this word as a precision of the term too vague and dreamlike virtual world. The metaverse is a “meta-universe”, so it exists on its own, in parallel with a real universe we live in.

Stephenson defines a metaverse in the following way, it is a meta-universe that rests on a technological (computer) basis, has an economic purpose (a local currency can be current there, generates transactions and profits), the participants have an interactive avatar (to convey emotions ), and must be able to represent a real quantity of individuals to reinforce the resemblance to the physical world (a crowd is made up of several individuals and not a message like “200 people are in the waiting room).

Instantly the movie images (Matrix, Ready player one) or games (The Sims, Clash of Clans, Fortnite) come to mind. An often utopian virtual world that has a life of its own.

But these illustrations have too many limitations. If the films perfectly represent the concept of metaverse, we are only spectators and we do not participate in this universe. If the games are an interactive application, they concern a specific audience (players of “world simulators” connected or not, of MMORPGs and who rely on game consoles, computers on which the screen-keyboard-mouse package or the screen- joystick remains the only possible interaction.

However, some “real” metaverses have emerged. In 1997 Canal + launched the first French online virtual world “The Second World”, the user received by mail a CD with the map of Paris (partially) digitized in 3D, he was able to install the CD on his computer, create an avatar and get around the city at very very slow speed!), meet people and meet in groups, chat via text chat, see advertisements. Here we find three of the four rules proposed by Stephenson, the economic dimension reduced to advertising for real-world products.

In 2003, the well-known “Second Life” (SL) offered a more successful version of the metaverse for the general public, taking up the fundamental concepts including a local currency, the Linden Dollar (L $), which was officially quoted.

Second World and Second Life were important passages, of which SL was undoubtedly the most successful, but the mania for the metaverse was exhausted for two reasons: first of all the man-machine interface (the screen-keyboard trio) mouse) is still a barrier to user immersion. Finally, the speculative bubble generated by SL knocked out the purists of the metaveres (the speculative craze of investors is quite far from the dreams of F. Turner in his book “To the sources of the digital utopia” and ruined the opportunists. social value (in Holbrook’s sense) did not keep its promises in the end emerging social networks whose social needs were met by a certain Facebook without having the constraints of low immersion linked to the interface (there were regions dedicated to all types of activities) created an explosion of the metaverse downgrading it to a kind of ultra-specialized MMORPG.

But why are the giants of the web embarking on this race today?

The current market is certainly more mature than in the 2000s. The rate of computer equipment and high-speed Internet access is nearly 90% of the population in Europe and the United States.

The pandemic has democratized human relations at a distance. Games based on the creation of a virtual world (Mindcraft, Fortnite, etc.) today reach a larger and older audience. The popularity of cryptocurrencies (Bitcoin, Shiba, etc.) trivializes the use of virtual currencies and the whims of their listing.

Finally, and perhaps above all, the democratization of virtual reality headsets allows us to overcome the main limitation of old experiences: immersion. Being “in” the metaverse, an immersed actor and no longer a spectator actor. Here we are close to the actors of the film Ready player one ! And what will happen if we live in a parallel world in a sustainable way? We will consume in this world! Services, goodies, avatars, special effects, many digital services to be purchased in virtual currency or real dollars. A sort of super Second Life in which the consumer will be immersed to consume, work, have fun, meet.

For major economic players such as Facebook, Alibaba but also for newcomers to the business, this is a way to retain their users by offering them an engaging experience. Buying products in an Alibaba “like” in a physical store with unlimited visual creativity, that’s what the online customer experience embodies, the holy grail of e-commerce.

Facebook can count on the loan of 2 billion daily users whose age and purchasing power place them in an economically viable goal.

Major Chinese players like Tencent embark on the adventure. Each company registers brands dedicated to future metaverses. Fortnite a pour sa part amorcé depuis quelques années la vente en ligne dans son univers de jeux, il dispose d’un vivier très vast (environ 350 millions de comptes) et plus jeune que Facebook, les acheteurs de demain sont les joueurs communautaires d ‘ Today !

The metaverse concept imagined in 1992 now sees a convergence of elements leading to a new renaissance: technical background (quality and low price of broadband connections, lower price of VR headsets), social background (acceptance of virtual human beings, rate of use of social networks and online games), the crucial point will be the range of services offered. How to make games (Fortnite), e-commerce (Alibaba), social relations (Facebook), work (Teams) converge in a virtual world? Value enrichment has rarely benefited leaders. We remember the failure of Google in social networks, of Facebook in emails or in online sales. The metaverse can see the emergence of new entrants who succeed in the convergence of services.


Of Stephane Bourliataux-Lajoinie, Lecturer (HDR) in Digital Marketing. Director of MiM2 E-business and Digital Marketing, National Conservatory of Arts and Crafts (CNAM).

The original version of this article was published in The Conversation.