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Lessons From the Catastrophic Failure of the Metaverse

Did the “creative class” learn anything from buying into a product that was obviously destined to flop?

Kate Wagner

July 3, 2023

A Metaverse soirée.(Getty)

There was a time, not so long ago, when every major architect on this planet was “building” in the Metaverse, the brand name for the open-world virtual reality platform and associated projects under the aegis of Mark Zuckerberg’s Meta. Last year, some staggering names such as Zaha Hadid Architects, Grimshaw, Farshid Moussavi, and, of course, the Bjarke Ingels Group pledged to create “virtual cities,” virtual “offices,” and equally vague sounding “social spaces” to be funded with cryptocurrency and supplied with art (NFTs). The eagerness to latch onto whatever the newest trend the increasingly desperate and failure-prone tech industry dished out was so palpable that even real-life developers like hotel chain CitizenM and brands like Jose Cuervo got involved and threw what one presumes is a whole lot of actual money at the enterprise. The rush to move into virtual real estate was a full-on frenzy.

In some respects, who could blame these companies and firms? Since the virtual reality service’s launch in 2021, the so-called “successor to the mobile internet” became the recipient of a kind of soaring hype few things are ever blessed with. According to Insider, McKinsey claimed that the Metaverse would bring businesses $5 trillion in value. Citi valued it at no less than $13 trillion.

There was only one problem: The whole thing was bullshit. Far from being worth trillions of dollars, the Metaverse turned out to be worth absolutely bupkus. It’s not even that the platform lagged behind expectations or was slow to become popular. There wasn’t anyone visiting the Metaverse at all.

The sheer scale of the hype inflation came to light in May. In the same article, Insider revealed that Decentraland, arguably the largest and most relevant Metaverse platform, had only 38 active daily users. The Guardian reported that one of the features designed to reward users in Meta’s flagship product Horizon Worlds produced no more than $470 in revenue globally. Thirty-eight active users. Four hundred and seventy dollars. You’re not reading those numbers wrong. To say that the Metaverse is dead is an understatement. It was never alive.

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In retrospect, that’s not surprising. If you are wondering what the point of the Metaverse is—business meetings? parties? living out a kind of late-’90s Second Life fantasy but without legs?—you are not alone. In fact, no one, even Zuckerberg himself, was ever really clear what the whole enterprise was for except being the future of the Internet and a kind of vague hanging out. And yet, that use case dilemma didn’t stop our profession from dragging their tongues on the floor in search of a quick press release or blurb to show that they were, after all, on the cutting edge of all things.

The Ford Pinto–esque failure of this enterprise, finally put to bed by Zuckerberg himself in May, cost people their jobs, investors their money, people their time. It should cost McKinsey, Citi, Meta, and all the folks in architecture eager to jump on the bandwagon more than a little of their prestige or dignity. But as we saw with NFTs and cryptocurrencies before the Metaverse and the similarly overblown rise of generative AI after, even in the face of such alarming patterns, not much seems to change.

For a field expressly rooted in the construction of real spaces, architecture sure betrays a desire worth interrogating to latch onto the latest ephemeral tech trends. This desire, it should be noted, is applied unevenly among virtual spaces and ideas. Virtual reality is itself far from useless for architecture. When I was studying acoustics in graduate school, designers spent a great deal of effort on creating spatialized sound to be used to sell services to clients, and to even preview what a space would sound like before it was built. Museums have been adding virtual reality elements as a teaching tool since the technology became available. Virtual social space itself is hardly a new idea—it’s pulled from science fiction and, later, the utopian dawn of the Internet, which imagined it as a kind of boundless, egalitarian, free commons. In our contemporary, monetized version of the net, Zuckerberg does have a point: People want to spend time in virtual spaces and they are important for socialization. Just not his virtual spaces.

If you ask kids what kinds of spaces they find themselves in, they won’t say Horizon Worlds. They’ll say Roblox (the controversial monetized game-design platform), Minecraft (an open world building video game old enough that I played it as a teenager myself), and Fortnite (a player-versus-player combat game with a great deal of customization.) Brands know this; many like Gucci and Nike have begun staging events and product launches in these virtual spaces, trying to capitalize on younger and younger eyeballs. But aside from a typical remark from Ingels that “architecture should be more like Minecraft” (i.e., playful like a video game), architecture—a highly professionalized world whose leaders, like Ingels, are in their 40s at their youngest—hasn’t paid much mind.

It makes sense, then, that what is in reality a highly stratified capitalist enterprise (that just happens to also be considered an art) wouldn’t see all of the exciting things bubbling beneath the surface in other parts of culture, like music and fashion. They instead see press releases from colleagues in the same insular, professionalized spheres: McKinsey, Meta, and PR agents.

But perhaps I am being too generous. The simple answer might just be plain old cynicism. In the social media age, architecture has increasingly gravitated toward PR fluff that doesn’t require making buildings or theory, the two central pillars of architectural production for millennia. While PR has always existed in the field (House Beautiful magazine anyone?) the short attention spans of the content creation era have all but guaranteed that the easiest way to get notoriety in or via a publication is to “create” just that: content (images, renderings, perhaps a 3D city in a program like Blender or Rhino). For added relevance, simply attach this content to whatever the issue—or product—du jour is. Climate change, the pandemic, the Metaverse. I’ve come to call this practice “PRchitecture.”

However, the astonishing size of the Metaverse’s failure; the consistent mocking it’s been subjected to; the disparity between the figures quoted by marketing and consulting agencies and reality; and the actual, insane amount of money involved should serve firstly as a overdue humiliation and secondly as a wakeup call.

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It is objectively embarrassing for the field of architecture to have tied itself to such a ridiculous fad that anyone with any common sense could see was both pointless and highly reviled by the public. But more importantly, the tech industry in its current iteration—which increasingly looks like a never-ending cycle of intangible hype bubbles at its best and financial scams at its worst—is no friend of architecture. It will not provide anything of lasting value or of considerable productiveness to society. The cycles of boom and bust are getting shorter and shorter and the wares being hawked more and more financialized and unstable.

The tech industry does not like architecture or the arts. It profits off of them, but, as we have seen with the labor implications of AI, is openly hostile toward the creative process and will stop at nothing until all labor and all things produced by it—from concept art and movie scripts to taxi rides and architecture—is overseen by its middlemen and thus gutted of its so-called “disruption.” The sooner architecture realizes this, the better off the field, its practitioners, and the people who work for it will be.

But then again, that doesn’t get so many clicks on Instagram, does it?

Editor’s note: This piece has been updated to more accurately characterize one of the revenue streams of Horizon Worlds.

Kate WagnerTwitterKate Wagner is The Nation’s architecture critic and a journalist based in Chicago and Ljubljana, Slovenia.


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