Mark Zuckerberg wants to expand Facebook into the metaverse, even if nobody knows what that is

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Mark Zuckerberg wants to expand Facebook into the metaverse, even if nobody knows what that is
"The Matrix." Warner Bros.
  • A metaverse is a virtual universe where people would use digital avatars and VR to interact.
  • It's akin to "The Matrix" or "Ready Player One," where characters are tethered to reality.
  • The concept found renewed chatter after Zuckerberg said Facebook would become a "metaverse company."

Mark Zuckerberg thrust a futuristic concept into the limelight earlier this summer when he announced Facebook will become known as a "metaverse company." Its first foray, he said Thursday, will be virtual reality workspaces.

The term has taken over public discourse since then - but mainly because no one knows what it means, even the inventor of the term.

The idea of a "metaverse" has existed in the gaming and science fiction realms for a while. But its introduction to the mainstream means the masses could probably use a rundown.

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Here's what you need to know.

'Metaverse' first materialized in a 1992 book called 'Snow Crash'

Mark Zuckerberg wants to expand Facebook into the metaverse, even if nobody knows what that is
"Snow Crash" author Neal Stephenson. Steve Jennings/Getty Images for TechCrunch

Author Neal Stephenson told Vanity Fair in 2017 that he was just "making shit up" when he wrote about what he called the metaverse in his science-fiction tale. But it and other elements he described have been taken to heart by many in the tech world.

The creator of Google Earth cited Stephenson's vision as inspiration for his design. And virtual-reality pioneer Magic Leap made Stephenson its Chief Futurist in 2014.

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So... what exactly is the metaverse?

Mark Zuckerberg wants to expand Facebook into the metaverse, even if nobody knows what that is
"Ready Player One." Warner Bros.

The metaverse is basically what will come after the internet.

It's a virtual space where humans - tethered to the physical world - can operate using virtual and augmented reality-powered avatars and exist in both places, losing touch on what's real and what's not.

Some pop culture examples of metaverses include "Ready Player One" and "The Matrix."

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The metaverse already existed in some forms within the gaming world, like in "Animal Crossing" and "Roblox." "Fortnite" creator Epic Games' CEO Tim Sweeney said in April after receiving a new funding round that it's grateful to investors "who support our visions for Epic and the Metaverse" and its work with "connected social experiences."

It also has associations with blockchain. The decentralized, digital asset could theoretically be used to pay for goods and services in the virtual universe.

Why is it bubbling to the surface now?

Mark Zuckerberg wants to expand Facebook into the metaverse, even if nobody knows what that is
'The Matrix." "The Matrix Reloaded"

As Wired notes, many of the literary and cinematic depictions of metaverses include a quasi-apocalyptic, dystopian, or at least unlivable, real world. The metaverse, therefore, would provide a much-desired escape from whatever is so undesirable about reality.

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During the pandemic, many of us have been driven online, existing more so on digital platforms and away from physical human interaction. With a pandemic, a divisive presidential election, and a world of uncertainty surrounding us, the need for an escape doesn't sound so unattractive.

Why is Zuck talking about it?

Mark Zuckerberg wants to expand Facebook into the metaverse, even if nobody knows what that is
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on stage at an Oculus developers conference in 2016. Glenn Chapmann/AFP via Getty Images

Zuckerberg wants to transition to a metaverse company. Its virtual reality arm Oculus and the VR network Facebook Horizons could aid in that mission. Though the metaverse wouldn't belong to just one company - it would be a collaborative space with multiple players, like how the internet already operates.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said recently that he wants to play a role in an "enterprise metaverse."

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But there is concern that since the metaverse concept is somewhat vague, tech companies are employing it as a marketing term, an umbrella word to signal promise for new product developments - a happy distraction from all that looming antitrust scrutiny.

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