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⚡ Life in the Metaverse
Why social VR doesn't have to be dystopian
Facebook has begun calling itself a “metaverse company” and doubled down on Oculus, avatar-based remote work, and marketplaces for virtual goods. Yet in today’s guest essay, open source virtual reality (VR) founder Anthony Tan presents a passionate call to protect the metaverse from megacorporations and preserve it as a space of sanctuary and recovery.
🥽 life in the metaverse
By Anthony Tan
I met my boyfriend in a virtual mansion overlooking Hong Kong. We had some drinks, played a game of pool, then took a portal into a nightclub and danced with dozens of people. Later, with a few friends, we hopped into a medieval inn and talked for the rest of the night, staring up at the digital moon.
This happened to me. This was a typical night in VRChat: a social VR platform and the closest thing we have to a metaverse today.
Recent visions of the “metaverse” have been depressingly commercial. In fact, the people of the early metaverse — internet communities, gamers, and VR users — don’t even use the term in their lives or conversations. Today, the metaverse lacks purpose. Should the metaverse even exist? And if so, why should anyone care?
The point of the metaverse is not to create a more powerful digital opiate. The point of the metaverse is not to manufacture digital status or extract more data from people. These are the current business models of the consumer internet, and would only lead to a metaverse as shallow, divisive, and invasive as the internet can be today.
I draw from three years, hundreds of nights, and thousands of conversations spent in social VR platforms. Done right, the metaverse offers us recovery: an escape that helps people become more creative, empathetic, and connected. A renewal of community, imagination, and a return to humanity.
humanizing the internet
VR has phenomenological legitimacy, or “presence.” People and objects are rendered immersively and interactively so that it feels like they are in the same room as you. When talking to people through avatars, you can read their body language, hear the nuance in their voices, and gesture with your hands. In VR, doctors practice surgery, designers design cars, militaries run simulations, new drivers are taught, and companies run Black Friday simulations and employee safety training.
Because of this humanizing effect, VRChat1 is one of the most open-minded and inclusive places I have been on the internet. The anonymity of an avatar frees users from judgment, giving them permission to consider different views and experiences.
Despite my suburban liberal upbringing in Canada, on VRChat, I have listened to people who want gun rights, who refuse vaccination, and who reject taxation. My worldview has become more open to every strand of human experience. Never before have I spoken to, much less befriended, active-duty soldiers, chefs, EDM musicians, cloud engineers, and freelance artists from all over the world. VRChat taught me to eschew labels — of profession, nation, politics, culture, gender — and see that we are all human, that we all have stories, and that what we want, fundamentally, is the same: to be happy, to have dignity, to be safe, and to be loved.
The metaverse can be a sanctuary. Just as how metaverse fiction often highlights society’s “outcasts,” social VR is full of niche and marginalized communities. One of the most popular worlds in VRChat, Helping Hands by Papa T, is a world for ASL language learning. Because of it, thousands of VRChat users have picked up some sign language. Dozens of other language learning worlds like Japanese Shrine by ITOAR let people practice new languages and experience different cultures, while LGBTQ+ communities congregate in worlds like Femboy Hooters by Terra boi and VirtualFurence Estrel Berlin by Reimajo. Those who struggle to find their place or who are separated from others like themselves in the physical world can seek community in virtual space. As Phia demonstrates, these bonds can even translate into the real world. Done right, the metaverse is a place where anyone can find belonging, no matter the distance.
renewing our perspectives
J. R. R. Tolkien defended the need for fantasy in order to renew one’s perspective of real life. In his words, shouldn’t a prisoner be allowed to “[think] and [talk] about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?”
We need a metaverse to escape the bounds of current realities and explore new possibilities. For many VRChat users, escape means hanging out with friends in the same space, free of the restrictions of geography. This includes playing games, going sightseeing, world-hopping, clubbing, working out, drinking, dating, making movies, and even sleeping together, platonically or otherwise. A step further is roleplay, where one takes on a new identity in shared, persistent community storytelling. The most prominent examples in VRChat are the furry community or groups like The Golden Gator.
Most inspiring are sanctuaries that reconceive the real world through the virtual.
Trans VR users can experience gender euphoria, presenting as their gender in their avatar in public or private spaces. When form is fluid, stereotypes, beauty, body standards, and gender norms become less restrictive. It’s harder to judge people’s appearances when you can choose exactly how you look. In these fantasy scapes, in the avatars we choose, we achieve recovery: the ability to live in our own stories, to inhabit worlds of imagination; to be liberated from our bodies and worries, if only for a little while; to renew our identities, communities, and dreams.
escaping corporate extraction
Tolkien distinguishes the “Escape of the Prisoner” from a grim and alienating reality and the “Flight of the Deserter” from the problems of the world. A dystopian metaverse might look like deserting reality — a world where people put on a VR headset and let the problems and responsibilities of the real world wither away.
Desertion as distraction is already a chronic feature of today’s internet. Whether funded by advertisers or political manipulators, social media feeds hook users’ limbic systems with an endless stream of algorithm-driven, dopamine-delivering content. In echo chambers, beliefs narrow and tolerance fades. Our digital lifestyles kill our attention spans, while depression and anxiety increase in correlate. Shoshana Zuboff argues that the internet’s business model of “surveillance capitalism” — the extraction and modification of behavioural data — is anti-democratic and dehumanizing.
A monopolized metaverse becomes a privatized, financially maximizing reality: a Matrix where humans, plugged into their VR headsets, are harvested for data, status, and money. A dystopian Metaverse is a digital reality without privacy, sanctuary, or freedom — the worst of the internet, strapped to your head. Already, Gucci purses in Roblox and CryptoPunks on Twitter suggest the beginnings of status hierarchies and financialization in the metaverse.
For now, though, VRChat’s 50,000+ worlds are not paywalled or surveilled. They are free and open for everyone to build and explore. Like the user-developers of the early internet, where people learned HTML for Geocities and animation on Newgrounds, social VR users are learning Blender and Unity to create their own virtual worlds and avatars, with many world-creators supported through Patreon. With this open approach to content and community, VRchat’s usage is beating Microsoft’s AltspaceVR and Facebook’s Horizons beta and Oculus Venues.
who will own the metaverse?
The metaverse is the next evolution of the internet and thus the next battleground for Big Tech. Facebook is investing billions, with 60% of VR users using Oculus headsets; Microsoft recently won a $22B U.S. military contract with its AR Hololens; and Apple (VR headsets, AR glasses, and LIDAR), Snapchat (Snap glasses and AR), Google (dark fibre, virtual assistants), and Epic (Fortnite) are also slouching towards the metaverse. Are these not the very megacorporations that cyberpunk and metaverse fiction warned us about?
We’ve not yet arrived at the dystopias of Ready Player One, The Matrix, Cyberpunk 2077, or Snow Crash. Hopefully, we never will. While Facebook and Epic (Fortnite) have stated they do not want to monopolize the metaverse, we should not give away its keys to whoever has the biggest wallet. While an economy in the metaverse is important for compensating creators and running underlying infrastructure, financialization is only a means to better interactions, lives, and communities — and it should never limit or exploit those ends. Metaverse companies need real ties to the communities they make money from. They should be driven by more than profit and be held accountable for how their products and platforms affect society. The metaverse can be so much more than a cash cow.
I have faith in the early communities and the artists, developers, and users shaping the metaverse today. This includes open source, interoperable, and community-driven social VR projects like Mozilla Hubs, NeosVR, Ready Player Me, SideQuest, High Fidelity and its forks, and OpenXR. Interoperability — the sharing of avatars, worlds, and technical standards — helps increase accountability and prevent monopolization. VR game developers like Valve and indie studios continue to inspire. In hardware, enthusiasts and engineers are designing open source and cheaper headsets, trackers of all kinds, and devices for greater accessibility and control. Meanwhile, VR films such as Clouds Over Sidra, Traveling While Black, Notes on Blindness, Ecosphere, Biidaaban: First Light, and Joe Hunting’s short films put viewers in the shoes of other people and experiences, potentially opening up your mind (and heart). More broadly, a free and open metaverse includes digital and political activists and pioneers of all stripes, including those in the privacy community, DeFi, and crypto.
From digital being to digital economy, whoever owns the metaverse holds the power of escape and the potential to create a renewed society. But for whom and by whom? I wish there was more room to showcase more stories, to convince you of the possibilities — and to warn you of what’s at stake.
Special thanks to editors Jessica Dai, Jasmine Sun, and Jaya Scott. Thanks also to early readers kfarwell, Bright, Kenari, and Syrmor.
Anthony Tan is the co-creator of open source VR social network ROVR and open source VR dating site VRLFP. He recently graduated from Western University, where he studied PPE (philosophy), and Ivey Business School, where he studied business and sustainability. Find him on ROVR or Twitter.
How did you first get involved in social VR?
My co-creator, kfarwell (Kyle), and I grew up together in the (boring) suburbs of Waterloo, Canada. In late 2019, he roped me into developing a matchmaking algorithm for his VR dating site, VRLFP. As a non-VR user, I was pretty skeptical, but then got my own headset last year. My life looks pretty different now. Personally, VR helped me meet and befriend other creatives and LGBTQ+ folks from all over the world, especially during COVID.
Why is open sourcing your work important to you?
Open source software is democratic and pro-freedom since anyone can suggest improvements to, copy, or fork it for their own. I think that culture, the scientific method, and art are essentially open source too. After we’re gone, our work should be able to live on and grow freely. On a practical level, open source ensures accountability, security, and intellectual rigor — we’re a small team, so we want to learn from our users and the experts.
What's one book you loved this year?
For nonfiction, I’d say This Could Be Our Future: A Manifesto for a More Generous World by Yancey Strickler. It’s a brilliant and balanced look at how we need to redefine self-concept, value, and our obligations to future generations in order to save the world. It integrates cutting-edge social science, economics, and history in an accessible way.
Fiction-wise, few books can make me cry, but On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong did that.
🎮 Venture capitalist Matthew Ball catalyzed the recent wave of tech industry interest in the metaverse with his influential January 2020 essay on the digital economy of Fortnite. Yet others like Kyle Chayka and Drew Austin remain skeptical about the industry’s turn toward proprietary “public” space.
💸 Vitalik Buterin, founder of Ethereum, warns against crypto communities’ overreliance on coin voting: a popular form of protocol governance that awards votes based on token holdings, leading to oligopolies and a lack of incentives to fund public goods.
📖 Send this to that friend who won’t stop talking about Infinite Jest.
💝 closing note
Recent creative achievements by Reboot community members:
Tanya Yang makes the case for white collar tech workers to convert class guilt — the “chain of contempt” — into motivation to organize.
Jasmine Wang is co-authoring a book of prose on AI, spirituality, and humanity with poet Iain Thomas.
Humphrey Obuobi’s team at Recidiviz launched a new dashboard to share criminal justice data for every state.
Find your sanctuary,
Jasmine & Reboot team