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How we define the metaverse today affects how we use it in the future

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Quick, define the word ‘metaverse’.

Created in 1992 by science fiction author Neal Stephensonthe relatively obscure term exploded in popularity during the COVID-19 pandemicespecially after Facebook was renamed Meta in October 2021. There are now numerous articles on the metaverse, and thousands of companies have invested in its development† Citigroup Inc. has estimated that by 2030 the metaverse could be a $13 trillion marketwith 5 billion users.

From climate change to global connection and disabled access to pandemic response, the metaverse has incredible potential. Meetings in virtual worlds have a significantly lower carbon footprint than face-to-face meetings. People all over the world can come together in virtual spaces. The metaverse can allow disabled people new forms of social participation through virtual entrepreneurship† And during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the metaverse not only provided people with ways to connect but also served as a place where, for example, those sharing a small apartment could be alone.

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Not less monumental dangers also existfrom surveillance and exploitation to disinformation and discrimination.

But discussing these benefits and threats remains difficult due to the confusion about what “metaverse” actually means. Like a professor of anthropology who has been researching the metaverse for nearly 20 years, I know this confusion matters. The metaverse is at a virtual intersection. Norms and standards set in the coming years are likely to structure the metaverse for decades. But without common conceptual ground, people cannot even debate these norms and standards.

Unable to distinguish innovation from hype, people can do little more than talk past each other. This literally allows powerful companies like Meta to determine the conditions for their own commercial interests. For example, Nick Clegg, former UK deputy prime minister and now president of global affairs at Meta, tried to control the narrative with the May 2022 essay “Making the metaverse

Categorical prototypes

Most attempted definitions for metaverse encompass a mind-boggling laundry list of technologies and principles, but always included are virtual worlds – places online where real people interact in real time. Thousands of virtual worlds already exist, some focused on gaming, such as Fortnite and Robloxothers more open, like Minecraft and Animal Crossing: New Horizons

In addition to virtual worlds, the list of metaverse technologies typically includes avatars, non-player characters, and bots; virtual reality; cryptocurrency, blockchain and non-fungible tokens; social networks from Facebook and Twitter to Discord and Slack; and mobile devices such as telephones and augmented reality interfaces. Also often included are principles such as interoperability – the idea that identities, friendship networks and digital items such as avatar clothing must be able to move between virtual worlds

The problem is people don’t categorize by laundry list. Instead, decades of research in cognitive science have shown that: most categories are ‘radial’, with a central prototype† You could define ‘bird’ in terms of a laundry list of properties: has wings, flies and so on. But the prototypical bird for North Americans resembles a sparrow. Hummingbirds and ducks are further away from this prototype. There are also flamingos and penguins. Yet they are all birds, radiating from the socially specific prototype. Someone who lives near Antarctica can place penguins closer to the center.