Like religious prophets, Big Tech luminaries are preaching the coming of the next internet. According to their gospel—blog posts by tech companies and venture capitalists alike—tomorrow’s cyberspace will be empyrean, transcendent, immersive, 3D, and all folded together, the disparate sites and services we live and die by gathered under one love. It will be a super-platform that convenes sub-platforms: social media, online video games, and ease-of-life apps, all accessible through the same digital space and sharing the same digital economy.
Virtual reality companies say you’ll get there through VR headsets, while augmented reality companies say you’ll wear AR smart goggles. And with boyish enthusiasm for science fiction fueling their piety, these preachers are calling this vision the metaverse, after Neal Stephenson’s 1992 dystopian novel Snow Crash.
Back when Stephenson wrote his book, the web was a smattering of freaky little planets connected only by the gravitational force of server technology. Novice developers built rudimentary websites using HTML and HTTP. Soon, Friends fan sites and the Texas Internet Consulting pages hung separately from gaudy GeoCities.coms filled with Broadway lyrics. From this scattered solar system were born web browsers like Mosaic and then Netscape to solve the problem of sorting and aggregating information.
The metaverse, as originally conceived by Stephenson, is focused around a three-dimensional digital street with virtual real estate, where users’ avatars can loiter, party, and do business, finding spaces and each other. It’s operated by a company called the Global Multimedia Protocol Group, which makes its money acting as the backbone of 3D cyberspace.
The starry-eyed futurists of the ’90s took the idea at face value, incarnating users as avatars in isolated cyberspaces like Activeworlds. The other half of the vision—the important half—was connecting cyberspaces, and this they were not able to do.
A metaverse must be interoperable; digital services associated with it must piece together, quilt-like, to form its fabric. Matthew Ball, a venture capitalist who has written frequently on the metaverse, says, “Interoperation effectively requires companies to release their control over proprietary formats, or otherwise adopt wholly open source ones.”
In the early 2000s, a bloom of open source metaverse projects emerged to solve the problem of stitching together existing virtual worlds. If the code were free and accessible to all, any Snow Crash fan with some know-how could carve out their own alley in the metaverse. And had the internet stayed frozen in its early form, one could easily imagine the porous, egalitarian metaverse it would have spawned: A 50-year-old in a Barbie avatar walks straight from her Second Life Dream House to Sephora.com’s VR boutique, where she purchases digital mascara with gold earned in World of Warcraft.
But those open metaverse projects never got off the ground. “There wasn’t a lot of enthusiasm around interconnection, partly because there really wasn’t a motive for it,” says Philip Rosedale, founder of Second Life publisher Linden Lab. “We were, as a company, trying to make some money.”
By the mid-2000s, it became clear that the money wasn’t in building individual websites; it was in making information sorters, channels, aggregators, and publishers—open enough to scale with user-generated content, but closed enough to reap enormous profits. “A few online services came to have a truly global user base and in its wake grew a global infrastructure dedicated to optimize its needs,” says Carl Gahnberg, a senior policy adviser at the Internet Society.
This was the evolution from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0. For nearly 30 years, the gravity of consolidation has pulled cyberspace together under the auspices of fewer and fewer corporate titans. The freaky little planets get drawn together, collide, make bigger planets, collide again, make stars, or even black holes. Facebook eats Instagram and WhatsApp; Amazon swallows two dozen ecommerce sites. And you’re left with these few supermassive players controlling and appropriating the celestial motion of billions of users. This is how Big Tech got big.