Does Anyone Want Hermetic Commerce? A Reflection on Local and the Metaverse
The announcement last fall of Facebook’s transformation into an entity called Meta, with a new stock ticker, MVRS, and a founder’s letter in which Mark Zuckerberg announced the company’s intent to pivot and become “metaverse-first, not Facebook first,” brought with it the strange sensation of what Yogi Berra called deja vu all over again. Zuckerberg made the bold claim that in helping to usher in the metaverse, his company was playing a central role in creating “the next chapter for the internet,” in which “you’re in the experience, not just looking at it.” According to Zuckerberg’s logic, the metaverse is simply the next evolutionary step in connected technologies.
The examples we’ve seen, however, offer a simulation of reality that feels like a slightly more sophisticated version of The Sims or Second Life, immersive worlds which have been around, at this point, for decades. (The younger of the two, Second Life, celebrates its 20th anniversary in 2023. The Sims has been around in various iterations since the late 1980s.) These worlds are themselves inspired by science fiction precedents like William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) and Neil Stephenson’s Snow Crash (1992). In many ways, the metaverse seems like nothing so much as the rewarmed leftovers of geekdom past.
True, the urge to occupy a simulated world has seen renewed interest in recent years with the popularity of immersive games such as Minecraft and Roblox; but do people really want immersive technology to overtake all of our online experiences,and to encroach on our offline lives as well? (“Think about how many physical things you have today that could just be holograms in the future,” Zuckerberg invites us to imagine.) And what is it, besides the need of Meta as a public company to develop new marketplaces — and perhaps distance itself from unpleasant contemporary scandals — that is driving such an aggressive vision of the future? Why the metaverse, and why now?
The metaverse, Covid, and local commerce
I’d argue that our Street Fight theme of the month — the long-term impact of the Covid pandemic — is at least one contributing factor to the metaverse craze. After all, the pandemic brought on an intense desire to conduct the normal business of life without the need for physical contact. During its height, many consumers would have welcomed, if it were technologically possible, a hermetically sealed existence that would allow them to buy groceries and other needed items — not to mention visiting with family and friends — while remaining fully protected from any potentially infectious contact. In that context, the promise of the metaverse would have been especially timely.
And indeed, businesses of all kinds responded to the consumer demand for safety by creating innovative variations on standard offerings. These were necessarily hybrid solutions, since no viable platform existed for conducting business in an entirely virtual manner, and doing so might not have made sense anyway, since so many commercial transactions must necessarily be fulfilled through some kind of physical contact.
A colleague who was working at the time for a marketing platform in the property management industry shared a pertinent example with me recently. For apartment rentals as well as home sales, self-guided showings very quickly became the default in 2020, as soon as a reasonable solution could be worked out for providing keys and instructions to customers securely. Once that solution was in place, the convenience and efficiency of the self-guided model immediately became clear, to the point that for many property owners, there was no reason to go back.
Some buyers (especially in today’s frenetic market) will purchase a house sight unseen, but most will want to preview the property in person; and yet that experience can be made more efficient by means of booking an appointment, agreeing to necessary terms, and receiving instructions digitally. Only the last step requires physical presence, and only the presence of the buyer is truly integral to completing the transaction.
I recently heard a spate of radio ads that seemed to speak directly to the role of virtuality in modern commerce. The first was an ad from used car retailer CarMax that read: “Imagine buying a car the way you want: online from the comfort of home; in person on the lot; or a combination of both. CarMax lets you choose the way you buy.” The second was from salon franchise Supercuts: “If you’re someone who doesn’t have time for a haircut, no more scouring the web for salons with availability. Check in on the Supercuts app, or just walk right in. You never have to travel too far to find your nearest Supercuts, and their highly trained stylists always give you the cut you want. Get in, get out, and get to that thing you needed a haircut for.”
It strikes me that these ads convey exactly the mix of virtuality and physical experience that consumers are most comfortable with today and that are most likely to define our near-term future. It’s a big leap from those forms of digital convenience to the metaverse, and it’s definitely still too early to tell whether that leap is inevitable.