the future

Lessons in Tending Your Metaverse

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer

Tomorrow, Facebook will unveil its “vision for the metaverse.” What beautiful darkness approaches?

But how different could a metaverse be from where we are? Many of us are more digital-ghost consumers than we might like to admit. Information and propaganda comes in; baby pictures go out; a person or product gets 3.5 stars; one of Jeff Bezos’s supermarkets sends over the diapers. I, for one, porter digital characters across a reputation market funspace all day.

All that’s left is to third-personalize ourselves into a cartoon entity that is basically just torso up, apparently. Really, if there are no genitals in the metaverse, a lot of us are going to be very disappointed! You can get a glimpse of a pretty awful potential metaverse future in this Facebook benefits video, delivered to an unsuspecting internet yesterday by BuzzFeed terrorist Katie Notopoulos.

There is singing about Facebook’s health insurance. And yes, if you’re outside the U.S., ask an American to explain open enrollment to you! It’s stupid! Open enrollment belongs in the corporate metaverse.

This vision of a connected digital future comes early on in our 60 days of Facebookmas. The list of media organizations that have access to the big dump of internal Facebook documents photographed at work by Frances Haugen is only growing, and they plan to publish stories on a daily basis … literally until Christmas. It’s understandable if you’re already overwhelmed with news and commentary and journalism about Facebook.

But what a metaverse might look like — besides, like, Zelle and Venmo and shoes and groceries and a complete lack of nudity — is community.

Reddit is around a year younger than Facebook. Unlike Facebook, which has brought little to the culture in the last few years, Reddit has recently been the site of three of the most interesting conversations about how we’re supposed to be a community of humans now. These conversations come bounding out of their digital space and infiltrate a much larger world, including the real one (outdoors).

WallStreetBets, a nearly ten-year-old community on Reddit, exposed the scam of the stock market when its members nearly took out a segment of the darkest sectors of the economy by hyping GameStop stock. Along the way, they also revealed the protectionist schemes of the economy built to support major players.

Over the last few months, the HermanCainAwards has attracted lots of attention for displaying the published histories of anti-vaccine and coronavirus misinformation spreaders, most of them evangelicals, who then went on to die of COVID. It’s a very active community! Where do they harvest those profiles? Why, as it happens, Facebook — the company that knows all about how its users progress from “harmless” local clusters toward “gateway groups” and then right into QAnon anti-vaxx birtherist cesspools.

Now, Antiwork has been one of the fastest growing subcultures on Reddit in the last week. It’s been around since 2013, but a series of (often probably fake) text message screenshots of people standing up to abusive employers has brought tens of thousands of people into the community.

(Meanwhile, Capitalism, the Reddit community for people to discuss “capitalist interests” — my capitalist interests include Bottega Veneta shoes and the ongoing subjugation of immigrant workforces in America, what are yours? — has but 50,000 members.)

Now en route to a million subscribers, Antiwork is avowedly, actively, actually anti-work. And it’s starting to figure out how it can take action. WallStreetBets proved again that Redditors can come together and mess with the world. What can a million angry commie anarchists and their friends get done?

Reddit absolutely isn’t some pristine example of getting everything right that Facebook gets wrong. Most recently, its leadership was thoroughly roasted because Reddit’s rule enforcement was protecting the spread of incorrect information about coronavirus and vaccines. It hosts communities that are steeped in bitterness and misapprehension and cruelty. And it has run afoul of everything from hoaxes to misidentifying criminals in amateur sleuth operations to licensed gun sales (for real) to really inappropriate pornography. (Yes, it is also one of the few platforms, along with Twitter, that displays real pornography.) But at least Reddit’s vision of a connected community doesn’t make you feel like a rat running a maze in a virtual conference room.

Lessons in Tending Your Metaverse