Metaverse for Dummies

Metaverse for Dummies. photo credit: Motley Fool

Dear Ms. Smartphone: Can you help me make sense of what is going on with all these headlines about the metaverse, say the metaverse for Dummies? This week the company Microsoft jumped in, but I was confused before then. I am middle-aged, a fan of Twitter and Facebook, and keep up with technology on my folding Samsung Z phone. A long time ago, I built a SimCity and then I played Minecraft with my kids. But I still don’t understand what is going on.  Is the metaverse another name for games?  Keach, Sausalito

Dear Keach: This coming week I am teaching on Zoom and the students and I both know there Is room for improvement.  While games and avatars grab our imagination today, we know there should be a better interactive tool for future online education, telemedicine, etc. So, here goes my own version of the metaverse for Dummies!

A working definition, still vague, is that the metaverse will emerge as a Web 3.0. The first commercial public phase, Web 1.0, circa (1989-1995) facilitated the transmission of information and emails. Then, Web 2.0 connected people, creating the sharing economy dominated by companies like Amazon and Facebook. For a more formal timeline, visit here. The metaverse, Web 3.0 will connect people, locations and things- sometimes in a fully virtual, 3D, synthetic environment. Metaverse will not be a single platform or a single technology, although Microsoft and Facebook are angling for that.

The devices we use to connect to this metaverse will not be handheld, like today’s phones. Sensors, special glasses, or implants on our body and clothing are more likely. And, given the history of many new devices and technology, it’s not surprising that they make an entry through less serious pursuits like games.  

Creating Scarcity:

The business model for the metaverse is still under development, but I want to sound a note of caution. When the Internet began, pioneer listserv users expected that it would democratize people and bring them together. Over the past ten years we have seen the Internet become factional and fractional. The tools of the metaverse- e.g. buying virtual clothing, real estate, and NFTs,  supersize that division IMHO. The graphic for today’s column comes from a Motley Fool article, which is titled, 3 Ways Metaverse Mortgages Will Affect Virtual Real Estate.” They encourage prescient investors to jump in today.

The Internet is boundless but new products, particularly NFTs, have a business model to create scarcity.  Those early adopters setting up the metaverse  hope to barter and sell these like physical assets. There is an interesting dynamic going on here: we all want more sustainable products, and they can sell us virtual products that reduce consumption and the need for physical resources. 

But, to answer your question more- why the metaverse? Why has Microsoft followed suit after Facebook? 

External Games:

First, you mentioned that you were an ex-gamer. Did you play a few videogames during Covid? Multitudes did. According to MarketWatch, videogames grew to $180 billion in revenue, and this remains larger than revenue from the global film industry ($100 billion) and from North American sports industries ($75 billion).  Even if the full metaverse is meta-years in the making, the seeds sprout today in the gaming industry. 

A second push for the metaverse comes from 5G networks and its faster, speedier communications. It is a frontier for programmers that lets them transfer more data at the same time, or in a shorter time and get prompter feedback. So the code they write, particularly for mobile devices, can be pushed in directions previously unimagined. Thinking forward, we need these metaverse innovations to have truly useful at-home robots, and safe, predictable out-of-home autonomous vehicles. 

Internal States:

A third reason the metaverse pushes forward has less to do with the world outside and more to do with our mental state and health. There has been a recent spate of concern, linking social media like Facebook with teen stress, anxiety, and addiction. A metaverse avatar has the potential to release the user from physical realities. Again, I am speculating, but will communications in the metaverse allow people with these challenges to step outside themselves, and experiment with different roles?  Erving Goffman, the famed sociologist, wrote that our everyday encounters are akin to a stage, where we don pretend masks to try-out impression management.  Today’s  avatars on iPhone messaging are a tiny creep into a future arena where we better manage or manipulate our time and interactions with strangers. 

As for the future of the metaverse, I will surely need to revise many points made here. Right now it seems like the metaverse is the playground of gamers and techies, but when it moves into the territory of DearSmartphone, you can be sure this will evolve, perhaps slouch, to DearSmartverse!

 Meanwhile, I stand ground that the infinite resources of the Internet should not be greedily divvied into coveted things that can then be bought and sold like physical assets. Thanks for your curiosity and question.

Is Texting How We Stay in Touch?

"Text your Mom and ask How long it takes to Microwave a 25lb Turkey". Image of a turkey and a microwave. Viral joke, 2018
Viral Joke: Texting on Thanksgiving. Is Texting How we Stay in Touch?

Dear Ms. Smartphone:  What’s going on with the holidays and so much texting and social media? I like hearing from friends who are far away, but this Thanksgiving it really got out of hand. All day there were texts and messages, plus the social media to respond to. Was everyone on their phones all the time and is texting the new way to stay in touch? Gabrielle, Sacramento

Dear Gabrielle: Before smartphones the busiest use of the telephone on Thanksgiving Day may have been to call the Butterball hotline. Now,  you are so right, our customs are changing, including microwaving the bird (ha ha). You can barely baste the turkey without stopping to answer a few texts or send out social media posts. Perhaps texting is how we stay in touch after all!

I think there are a couple of explanations for this growth of holiday “media”, but mind you, my data here is not scientific. I am just a casual observer, who is still trying to wipe that turkey grease off my touch screen after an overwhelming number of t-day texts.  

COVID Calling:

It’s likely that people had a wake-up call (no pun intended) about maintaining friendships from a distance during the pandemic. Families and friends were not able to get together during the 2020 holiday, so they turned to their phones to stay connected. Throughout 2020 we found the phone to be an antidote to the loneliness, dislocation, and uncertainty. Hopefully these virtual connections will grow in the years to come and not just around the holidays.

Truly making a call or text is a substitution of communication for travel.  But phones reach more people than you could ever travel to, or wish to spend an entire turkey dinner with. And, the US Census tells us that family formation is slowing down so with more single-person households we are reaching out to a more dispersed network of distant friends and distant family.

NOT A HALLMARK:

We used to send paper greeting cards (esp. on  Mothers Day)  and these had to travel on planes, and these traveled too, on trains, and trucks through the post office. Have you noticed that the racks of greetings cards in retail stores have been shrinking and pushed towards the back wall?  I  personally recall that the last Thanksgiving Card I  sent was to my elderly next door neighbor, when  I was out of town and she did not understand how to answer a smartphone. 

Smartphones have a contextual advantage over the pieces of cardboard called greeting cards. They allow the party receiving our text to quickly respond, with a few words, an emoji, or more. Even if that response does not happen you need to acknowledge that for some people, it’s simply easier to communicate visually, through emojis. 

FAST AND FEAST:

Staying in touch by text is a fast, low time commitment and it makes the day go faster. It means I remember your name and have your phone number stored as a contact!  Yet it also has the potential to be a foot in the door to a future conversation and sharing. Every one-way text can potentially blossom into a two-way conversation. 

So, the next time you get one of these long-distance holiday texts, thank your friend or family member. You can also thoughtfully observe that you are both participating in a carbon-friendly mode.

In closing, it is noteworthy that while the turkey is a constant through Thanksgiving, other media habits are in flux too. Television is often a constant during the T- holiday, beginning with the morning parade, and closing with the football games. These events, especially football, had high viewership this year. Are people stuck at home craving a shared experience? Just as we seasoned with the phone to renew distant friendships, we added TV to complete the feast.

Can Emojis Make Me Seem Empathetic?

Will an emoji improve my relationship? Or spice it up?!

A banner ad that says pump up your sexting with emojis. It shows lips, a peach, and eggplant as possible emojis.
Will emojis make me seem empathetic (or more?) Credit: emojiguide.com

Dear Ms. Smartphone: Can emojis make me seem more empathetic? My girlfriend says I lack empathy and while I don’t think that is true, I see that I could easily sprinkle some emojis in my correspondence to her. I am not sure why she is asking me this but should I add some happy faces? It’s an easy fix!  Ryan, Sacramento

Dear Ryan:  Empathy is the buzz word these days, and it’s good to seek it wherever we can. Personally, the only emoji I wish for a big human ear with an X across it. This ‘EarX’ emoji would replace the need to shout on Zoom, “You are on Mute.”

But, to be serious, learned linguists and psychologists do think that emojis can improve written communications. Emojis can embed tone and intention and help substitute for the non-verbal cues and gestures for face-to-face communications. As you can see in the image, they can also do a lot more! But stay dubious, for there are lots of foibles and miscommunications in face-to-face meet ups too.

from the i-mode team:

Emojis were conceived alongside the Internet to clarify the written word, and  some would say, fill the empathy gap.  A Japanese  telecom team, assigned to a project called i-mode, observed that email recipients could not judge the context and intentions (for a fuller breakdown read this).  Team member Shigeta Kurita was graphically inspired  by manga and kanji. But, recall that the yellow smiley face, with two dots for eyes and a wide grin, had already become an universal symbol.

That was when Windows 95 launched. Since then emojis continue to sprout like a new language. Social media firms have been intent on marrying the emoji to convey emotion and empathy, just like you mentioned. Facebook experimented with them (circa 2012) because they hoped that users would be less angry and more compliant when friends asked them to remove photos or messages. Says a UCBerkeley psychology  professor advising Facebook’s emoticon team, ” The idea was to get people to be kinder and more polite to make for more compassionate communication.” 

A Verbal Shortcut

As emojis become an everyday auxiliary, my opinion is that we use them less for emotive means and more for speed. We add emojis to our texts and chat as they shorten the number of words to input. Emojis are a meta-language well suited for phones:  brevity counts and the emoji is a verbal shortcut. 

There seems little harm as you say in “sprinkling some emojis” through your text or chat to the girlfriend, but before you start using them remember that there is no emoji standard. Users in different countries and different cultures make different assumptions on their motivation and meaning. Using an emoji might not create that shared harmony you seek.

Furthermore, human empathy is endless, but emoji is not. In 2019 there were 2,823 symbols encoded by Unicode. If you are serious about this relationship, then ask her to comment on the emojis you choose, and specifically ask how they make her feel. Better yet, do this in person, not over chat or text! BTW, sending  fresh flowers, or cards or food always outshines emojis. 😀 😃 😄