The Insider & Ed Zitron’s “Obituary” to the Metaverse is Actually a Zombie Horde of Embarrassing Half-Truths

Above: Insider’s attempted Metaverse debunking comes replete with VR headset illustration indicating Insider’s editors don’t actually understand the concept

Insider just ran a putative obituary for the Metaverse that’s so incandescently wrong, it reminds me of that famous Mary McCarthy line, “every word she writes is false, including ‘and’ and ‘but.'” Obviously I’m somewhat (very) biased on this topic, but seeing as author Ed Zitron’s diatribe has gone viral (as he himself boasts), it deserves closer scrutiny. 

The trouble begins right in the third sentence:

The capital-M Metaverse, a descendant of the 1982 movie “Tron” and the 2003 video game “Second Life,” was born in 2021 when Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg changed the name of his trillion-dollar company to Meta.

It’s mind-boggling how a single sentence of only 35 words can be so redolent of fail. To start:

On a pure factual basis, Zuckerberg changing Facebook’s name to Meta in 2021 was not the birth of the Metaverse, even from the skewed perspective of Wall Street. From that vantage, a better date would be late 2020, with Roblox’s IPO filing, which literally includes a (pretty good) definition of the Metaverse:

Some refer to our category as the metaverse, a term often used to describe the concept of persistent, shared, 3D virtual spaces in a virtual universe. The idea of a metaverse has been written about by futurists and science fiction authors for over 30 years. With the advent of increasingly powerful consumer computing devices, cloud computing, and high bandwidth internet connections, the concept of the metaverse is materializing.

Yes: Roblox defined itself to Wall Street as the Metaverse, nearly a full year before Facebook’s name change. And seeing as Roblox now has over 250 million monthly active users, that somewhat undermines Zitron’s obituary.

It’s not a surprise Roblox’s stock filing mentions the Metaverse, because the company’s CEO — as many technologists before and after him — were directly inspired by that mysterious work of fiction which is not (as Zitron apparently thinks) the original Disney movie Tron. As explained in Stanford Magazine:

Four years after graduation [in 1985, Roblox co-founder CEO Dave] Baszucki and his brother, Greg, created Interactive Physics, a simulated physics lab for students. In the years that followed, Baszucki noticed that young people were not only doing their homework with his software but also creating their own simulations with it. He became familiar with the idea of the metaverse from reading Neal Stephenson’s 1992 science-fiction novel Snow Crash, and he soon realized that an open, virtual system used by millions of people would be more powerful than static software sold in a box.

Zitron does not mention Snow Crash even once in his Metaverse “obituary”, leaving one to wonder if he even knows the book exists, let alone read it. (Let alone knowing the author recently founded a metaverse company of his own.) And while it’s narrowly true that Second Life is a descendent of the Metaverse of Snow Crash — not the other way around — calling it a “video game” (i.e. played on a console) is a pretty spectacular indicator of the most superficial knowledge of the topic.

Again, Snow Crash is not just a passing sci-fi reference for the Metaverse: It’s been a direct, defining guide for technologists who have wanted to build something like it from basically the moment the novel was published. (As I often mention, it was in the library of Linden Lab and referenced when the startup was building Second Life.) So ignoring or blurring its influence is a grotesque omission that undermines anything subsequently said about the topic.

And it leads Zitron into cul de sacs of confusion like this:

Decentraland, the most well-funded, decentralized, crypto-based Metaverse product (effectively a wonky online world you can “walk” around), only had around 38 daily active users in its “$1.3 billion ecosystem.” Decentraland would dispute this number, claiming that it had 8,000 daily active users — but that’s still only a fraction of the number of people playing large online games like “Fortnite.” 

Now Decentraland’s problems are well-documented by this blog — though I believe The Sandbox is the most heavily-funded “cryptoverse” — but it’s comical to compare it to Fortnite and then call Fortnite an “online game”.

Ed. Eddie. Bubbeleh. Are you sitting down? Gotta tell you something.

Fortnite is itself a metaverse platform.

And as with Baszucki and Roblox, Epic’s Tim Sweeney has been publicly talking about creating the Metaverse years before the word extruded from Zuckerberg’s face — in 2019, in 2017, likely back all the way to the 1990s, around the same time his close colleague John Carmack said, “Making Snow Crash into a reality feels like a sort of moral imperative.”

As to Zuckerberg, there are many reasons why he shifted Facebook into Meta and a Metaverse path, some for the purposes of PR, but others reflecting a true groundswell and sustained interest by him and other execs at the company — which for several reasons, met with disaster. I get into those — here comes the plug — in my book.

If Zitron’s “obituary” was strictly regarding Meta’s attempt to make the Metaverse, he would have been on more solid ground. Instead, it’s a veritable emperor’s tomb of half-truths and rank incuriousness, the very kind that have dogged the Metaverse like so many indestructible zombies for the last 20 years. 

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