The Metaverse, Web 3 and Internet 2: the conversation (and hype) continues

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Two things happened recently that reminded me of the saying “what goes around, comes around” but in a good way. Both things concern the metaverse, Web 3 and Internet 2.

These are terms that everyone is talking about online and offline, yet no one seems to be talking about them from the same page.

The most recent reminder came a few days ago in a tweet from Joe Garde in Dublin who noted the state of things back in 2008. “Fun looking back.. 14 year’s or so.. What we were doing in SL.. ‘Walking’ out of Web 2 into Web 3 was the idea,” said Joe, in reference to the typical conversation topics among early adopters, a group of which I met up with on a visit to Dublin in May that year.

“Walking out of Web 2 into Web 3” is a great way to summarise the focus behind the conversations back then – many taking place in Second Life – that largely has the same focus today with people articulating their vision of that journey even if the detail about Web 2 and Web 3 from then to now isn’t the same.

That doesn’t actually matter much, it seems to me, as attempts to define all these terms – metaverse, Web 3, Internet 2 – just muddies the water further as there is little consensus emerging yet on meanings likely to get wide understanding.

One thing today that’s similar to what was happening in that earlier period 14+ years ago is the way in which many people are pressing ahead with experiments no matter that the definition of where and how they’re doing that isn’t clear at all.

Back then, we saw early adopters like Dell, IBM, General Motors, BBC, ABN Amro Bank, Coca-Cola, and many others putting a lot more than just toes in the virtual water trying to figure out the worth in and value of being actively present in a virtual place like Second Life.

Back then, I was part of Crayon, a company founded in Second Life in 2006 with Joseph Jaffe, Shel Holtz, and CC Chapman, where we lived the dream of working with some great brands on helping them figure out Second Life.

For me, an especially memorable event was the virtual media conference held in Second Life in early June 2007 to promote the Die Hard 4 movie where star actor Bruce Willis took an active part in a Q&A session via his avatar with the assembled media via each journalist’s avatar. Very ground-breaking at the time.

Bruce Willis in Second Life
(Screenshot: Bruce Willis in Q&A about ‘Die Hard 4’ in a press conference in Second Life, June 2007)

Today, we see many people trying to figure out the metaverse – I see this as a successor to Second Life although I’m not saying that’s a definition – with Big Tech companies like Meta (Facebook), Microsoft, Epic Games, Google, Nvidia, and Apple, and myriad newer entrants like Roblox and Decentraland, all of which are major players in constructing foundations and creating experiences that run on them.

Not to mention blockchain and cryptocurrencies that some see as core to decentralisation of the Internet (which is a good thing) whatever the number is.

From this it’s not hard to see that the sheer scope and scale of this foundation-building just dwarfs what one company was able to do in the early years of this century compared to what dozens are doing today. The broad tech landscape now is one of powerful usually-mobile devices with fast high-definition graphic displays, content storage in the cloud and on local SSDs measured in terabytes and petabytes, and ubiquitous fast network connectivity on demand almost anywhere in advanced economies, all combined with broad awareness of that tech and understanding what it lets people do.

That certainly was not the picture 14+ years ago.

Hang on, I hear you say. All of this is just the metaverse. Where’s Web 3 and Internet 2?

Well, this leads to the second thing that happened and that has greatly influenced my thinking.

First, though, I think the three terms are elements of a singular entity that’s evolving. One of the three names might become the singular descriptor for all three. Or it might be something else entirely.

Look at the metaverse market map above, created by Jon Radoff in early 2021. This offers some good clues on the overlap across these three loosely-defined terms. I think of it like the current Internet (with a capital ‘I’), the global system of interconnected computer networks (let’s call them internets with a small ‘i’) which is about a decentralised layered landscape – the foundation, the application layer that sits on top, transport and security layers, etc.

The overlap depicted in the map suggests to me that the metaverse (we probably would call this ‘the Metaverse’ with a capital ‘M’), Web 3 and Internet 2 are pieces of the same jigsaw puzzle.

Last week, Shel Holtz and I discussed Web 3 in the December episode of the FIR podcast. I’ve been thinking a lot about that conversation since, which has partly crystalised some of that thinking in this article.

While I’m still thinking about and reviewing where that’s leading me – and I believe it’s not down a rabbit hole – I’ve arrived at a waypoint stop on the journey. This is the second thing I mentioned.

In considering everything that’s going on that everyone is talking about – the many opportunities awaiting businesses, brands, investors, and ordinary people in the brave new world ahead – we seem to have missed some important considerations.

This isn’t too unlike what was happening back in the mid-noughties, except now it’s at hugely greater scale and with greater potential consequences

Tim O’Reilly captures the matter extremely well when he wrote a few weeks ago on why it’s too early to get excited about Web 3.

He quotes science fiction writer William Gibson (he coined the term “cyberspace“) who said, “The future is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed yet.” We can also look at economic and social patterns and cycles, he notes, using as a lens the observation ascribed to Mark Twain that “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.”

And he asks, “Using those filters, what can we say about Web 3?” He continues in an absorbing assessment of the present “we’re here for the money” landscape and land-grab that seems to epitomise Web 3 right now.

His concluding remarks summarise where we ought to be today rather than where we actually are:

“Let’s focus on the parts of the Web3 vision that aren’t about easy riches, but on solving hard problems in trust, identity, and decentralized finance. And above all, let’s focus on the interface between crypto and the real world that people live in, where, as Matthew Yglesias put it when talking about housing inequality, “a society becomes wealthy over time by accumulating a stock of long-lasting capital goods.” If, as Sal Delle Palme argues, Web3 heralds the birth of a new economic system, let’s make it one that increases true wealth—not just paper wealth for those lucky enough to get in early but actual life-changing goods and services that make life better for everyone.”

That also means to me not allowing only companies like Meta to set the agenda for what’s to come, something Second Life founder Philip Rosedale has a strong view on. They need to be participants, there is no doubt about that. But, just as with the current issues of regulating social media, they cannot be in the driving seat.

As for who should be in the driving seat, that’s another vexatious matter.

In his article, O’Reilly talks at length about cryptocurrencies, the dot-com bubble, and the Dutch tulip mania bubble of the 17th century, all in the context of asking, “Where are we in the cycle?” For today, I’d ask “Where are we in the hype cycle?”

Metaverse hype cycle

If you’re familiar with Gartner’s hype cycles, you’ll know that they provide a graphical and conceptual presentation of the maturity of emerging technologies through five phases:

  1. The first phase is the technology trigger and the stories and talk across mainstream and social media about a potential technology breakthrough that generates significant publicity and awareness.
  2. The second phase is the peak of inflated expectations, where we hear about a number of success stories, often accompanied by scores of failures.
  3. The third phase is the trough of disillusionment, that place where interest wanes as experiments and implementations fail to deliver. There’s a winnowing of players in the space and investment continues only if the surviving providers improve their offerings to the satisfaction of early adopters.
  4. The trick here is to see how long you sit in the trough before you start to climb phase four, the slope of enlightenment where people realise that what you offer actually can deliver on the great promises.
  5. This leads to the plateau of productivity, meaning you’ll more than likely hit the mainstream.

I believe we are almost at the peak of inflated expectations with our trio of tech-based stories that herald much promise but have yet to deliver anything.

Which is not too bad a place to be as worthless predictions and debate are discarded, as visions and new perspectives are articulated and shared, and as conversations continue. I expect in 2022 we will see even more stories and talk, some of which will be worthy of our attention and debate, which may lead to a short stay in the trough of disillusionment – which surely is the next destination very soon – and a rapid climb onto the slope of enlightenment.

Btw, I’m still present in Second Life, a place that’s still going strong: look me up and connect if you’d like to chat in an early metaverse (with a small ‘m’).

Happy New Year!