The Metaverse: Death by Terminology

What exactly is the Metaverse and why is it so hard to understand?

Eric Kreis, Insight Analyst at the IPA, tackles one of the big questions facing our industry right now… what exactly is the Metaverse and why is it so hard to understand?

I was sitting in a café a few weeks ago (one of the cool ones in Shoreditch), and my attention was drawn to a conversation between two people about the Metaverse. "You don’t know about the Metaverse?" said the man in the varsity jacket. "No, not really. What is it?" I felt like I was on the cusp of something truly monumental – a real-life, real-time definition of the Metaverse! I shuffled to the edge of my stool and tuned in. At breakneck speed, he started rattling away: "In the future the Metaverse is where we’ll be able to do everything! We’ll be able to shop on the Metaverse, work on the Metaverse, date on the Metaverse…". Despite his confident delivery and the many stickers on his laptop, I was still left unsatisfied.

Perhaps he should have learned from the rhetorical shortcomings of recent Ex(press)-Prime Minister Liz Truss. Much like 'Growth, Growth and more Growth', energetic incantations of 'Metaverse, Metaverse and more Metaverse' leave most people bewitched. You hear the words but you’re not quite sure what they actually mean. Of course, this is not a new observation, many have noted the nebulous nature of the term before. A passage from this WIRED article illustrates this vagueness with the following exercise:

Mentally replace the phrase “the Metaverse” in a sentence with “cyberspace.” Ninety percent of the time, the meaning won't substantially change. That's because the term doesn't really refer to any one specific type of technology, but rather a broad (and often speculative) shift in how we interact with technology.

Eric Ravenscraft, WIRED

So then, no hope for a succinct definition it seems because the Metaverse isn’t just one thing. What we are left with instead are principles, the raw ingredients that define the dish (it’s not butter chicken without the butter… or the chicken). Matthew Ball has come up with seven such principles that provide helpful parameters for the discussion. In a nutshell, the Metaverse must be fully synchronous, always live and widely populated by users who have the ability to create and interact with the creations of others. It must also be “inter-operable” meaning you can go between spaces with digital assets from one world and use them in another all backed by a functioning economy that carries and exchanges value. To go alongside Ball’s principles, I would add one more thing; that visually the Metaverse should appear as a 3D internet - a virtual world as opposed to a series of webpages. All these combined should leave us on roughly the same page – or at least in the same aisle of the library…

Why the confusion?

According to research only 16% of people understand what the Metaverse is (and even then I would wager that this group would hold inconsistent definitions). So why all the confusion? Well, I can think of a few reasons.

The first obstacle to a shared understanding is that the Metaverse currently doesn’t exist in the way that it’s commonly imagined. As the man in the varsity jacket demonstrates the popular, shorthand view of the Metaverse is that it will replace or substantially supplement reality. However, this vision is, for now, just a vision. The lack of participation and population of flagship spaces like Horizon World means that the product doesn’t yet match the pitch. This is a sure-fire way to consumer disinterest and distrust.

This points to another confusing aspect to the Metaverse. All the chatter, hype and buzz has left room for some striking contradictions. For example, while the Metaverse is promoted as a decentralised, user owned and generated space one on hand, it is also where companies like PwC, Samsung and JP Morgan have flocked to ‘buy up real estate’. The centrality of brands in what should be a UGC-flavoured space is yet another barrier to audiences understanding the concept.

Lastly, and most confounding of all, one must ask what function the Metaverse provides to consumers that they do not already have. I attended a debate where VCCP’s Melanie Wong poetically described the Metaverse as “a solution looking for a problem”. We can hark back to the coffee shop sermon to see what this means. Shopping, working and dating are already digitally enabled functions; Oakley use an AR filter that allows you to try before you buy, and we already know how to effectively collaborate professionally online (despite some trade-offs). You should (theoretically) be able to find a date on one of many dating apps Tinder, Hinge or Bumble… and while wearing a headset might better your chances - that’s got nothing to do with the Metaverse.

While these paradoxes abound, we cannot expect consumers to engage with a space that itself hasn’t been communicated clearly. Most people are tired of trying to wrap their head around a concept that (and it’s easy to forget) is supposed to be easy and fun. So let’s put definitions to one side and try to remember that there is plenty to be excited about.

The M-Word

Back in 2019, Wendy’s hijacked the frenzy around Fortnite and launched their own Twitch-streamed fad where players were encouraged to smash in-game burger freezers, an ode to Wendy’s brand promise to never use frozen patties. In-game concerts from Travis Scott and Ariane Grande followed and Fortnite has continued to broaden the experiences available of their platform. But most notable is what isn’t happening here. No one is promising a Fortnite future where you can paraglide into your real-world 9-to-5. Instead the game-turned-virtual world is quietly delivering much of the experiences promised by the Metaverse – only without the headset or the headache of explaining the whole thing! Fortnite is a great example of how to use Metaverse components or principles without the added pressure of promising too much.

It leaves me wondering how useful the “Metaverse” tag is for brands who are, at the end of the day, just trying to engage with consumers? Before we had the compulsion to frame everything as an example of the Metaverse, we were using emerging technology to do cool and creative things. Burger King and BBH’s OOH campaign used AR and mixed reality tech to leave a smoke trail to the nearest Whopper. Let’s not forget how Pokémon Go gripped the pre-Meta world too. Add an Oculus to either of the above and you could loosely fit a Metaverse label to either. But you don’t need to put a label on something for it to be an incredible experience. Take a more bespoke example, In The Eyes of the Animal is a VR experience that provided users with an animalistic view of the world (if the name didn’t give it away). While the experience does what it says on the tin, the real surprise here is that this was being done back in 2015 with no Metaverse in sight.

So, my parting advice is let’s continue to create these immersive experiences and forget about the pressure of promising a whole new world. As an industry, we have a knack for overestimating the short term and undervaluing the long term. Let’s not let futuristic jargon distract from technology that can be used to offer truly memorable brand experiences today.


Eric Kreis is an Insight Analyst at the IPA and will be attending SXSW to discover more about the latest innovations set to impact our industry, including the Metaverse. If there’s anything you’d like him to explore while in Texas you can reach him at: [email protected]

The opinions expressed here are those of the author and were submitted in accordance with the IPA terms and conditions regarding the uploading and contribution of content to the IPA newsletters, IPA website, or other IPA media, and should not be interpreted as representing the opinion of the IPA.

Last updated 01 May 2024