Consider the following question:

What is the metaverse?

In recent years, there was a lot of discussion how to approach an answer to the nature of the metaverse concept. Some groups attach the term to specific technologies, for example Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, Mixed Reality, Digital Twins or Blockchains. Others talk about specific requirements, for example persistence, interoperability, or massively multi-user or modalities like headsets. Others see it as a future vision or narrative, sometimes dystopian, sometimes utopian.

This recent trend to “Declare the Metaverse” is not surprising as it never was a clear concept in the first place. There never was an official governing body that could authoritatively state what can and cannot be the metaverse.

When I started working in the online games industry in the 1990s, I remember intense arguments in the hallways of the Game Developers Conference (GDC) what an “online game” actually was. Was it a game? A virtual community? A virtual world?

We started with the concept of “players,” but quickly expanded into “virtual societies” and “virtual governments.” We discussed ethics, accessibility, equity, safety, and governance in virtual spaces and how they differed from reality.

And then there were workgroups like “Project Horseshoe,” arguing what “virtuality” really meant, and if one could meaningfully separate it from reality.

The discussions continued when I transitioned into building social experiences on the World Wide Web. Did we really create virtual communities for virtual brands, or was it real people and brands that connected via virtuality?

As time went on the terms to describe these concepts changed, including “Virtual Worlds,” “Mirror Worlds,” “Connected Worlds,” “Digital Dimensions,” or simply “Virtuality”. But the term “Metaverse” always crept back into the discussions.

“Metaverse” did not just describe a concept, it also carried a certain gestalt – it evoked a certain style and form, rolled into a future vision of life in virtuality. And as we developed that new life online, it was inevitably shaped by these visions. Gradually, the concept of the metaverse evolved, as new expectations, assumptions, and visions for future life online emerged.

Looking beyond the recent hype around the metaverse and the ensuing narrative conflict, I started to wonder: How good is this history documented? Did we, the metaverse expert community, still remember those discussions around technical and social concepts? The ideologies behind them, and the resulting interpretations and visions for a metaverse? And where they originally came from?

As a result, I started writing a series of articles in early 2022, called “Fieldnotes from the Metaverse.” And while that was very well received, I eventually realized that I wanted to do more.

The upcoming book of the same name is my attempt to retell the history of the metaverse from my point of view. Instead of pushing a specific vision or narrative, I want to uncover where each of them came from, and how they evolved into what we see today.

My hope is that the book will inspire others to compare and publish their own personal fieldnotes, overall leading to more nuanced discussions beyond the performativity we see today.

And maybe, eventually, we can approach better answers to the initial question: What is the metaverse? And for whom is it anyway?

For more background on the project, please see the initial post “Let’s get started (again)!