On Tuesday, 35 technology companies—among them Meta (formerly known as Facebook), Microsoft, Alibaba, and Sony—announced their founding membership in an organization calling itself the Metaverse Standards Forum.
The Forum’s stated goal: to foster coordination and cooperation among the hundreds of companies currently jockeying to create (or depending who you ask, dominate) the still-nascent metaverse: an immersive collection of digital spaces and worlds navigated via 3D avatars that many see as the future of the internet.
These tech giants claim they have banded together to set standards toward creating an “open and inclusive metaverse.” But their counterparts in the world of Web3—the individuals who believe the metaverse will be built on open, permissionless blockchain networks—say there’s reason to be skeptical.
“I think we should always stay skeptical,” Danny Greene, general manager of the Meebits DAO, told Decrypt. “At the end of the day, we’re fighting for a decentralized future and these are corporations that are representing shareholders.”
Key to the Forum’s stated aim to create an open metaverse, unable to be controlled by one company, is a particular word: interoperability. Many envision the metaverse as a constellation of many digital “neighborhoods,” each built by a different company. For these digital neighborhoods to be easily traversable, it would require digital assets of all kinds to pass freely, interoperably, from one neighborhood to the next.
Achieving interoperability would be a technical feat (think about getting a digital dress, for example, to instantly morph from a 2D world into 3D), but just as much so, an economic and political one.
Critics of big tech fear that larger corporations wading into the metaverse have a different vision for it: one in which a company like Meta keeps its digital marketplaces, and crucially, data and analytics, firmly under its control, in a more siloed digital environment instead of borderless neighborhoods. After Meta dove headfirst into the metaverse and changed its name from Facebook last fall, metaverse builders such as Sky Mavis co-founder and Growth Lead Jeff “Jiho” Zirlin labeled the event the first shot in a “battle for the future of the internet.”
While skeptical, Greene also expressed some cautious optimism about the Metaverse Standards Forum should Meta and these other publicly traded companies be sincere in their pledge to industry-wide cooperation on interoperability standards.
“To the extent that major corporations—that have the money, the talent, and the reach to really advance the ideas of the metaverse—are really signing on to the pledge of interoperability, I’m incredibly excited about the news,” said Greene.
Others were, however, more explicit in their cynicism. Yat Siu, founder and executive chairman of Animoca Brands, the $5 billion dollar software and venture capital firm behind numerous leading metaverse projects, has previously labeled Meta’s metaverse ambitions as “digital colonialism.”
In an email to Decrypt, he dismissed the Metaverse Standards Forum as a “paper tiger” and likened it to the League of Nations, the international body created after the First World War to promote multilateralism and prevent another global catastrophe, which quickly gave way to the rise of fascism and World War II.
Chief among Siu’s critiques of the pact is the unlikelihood that any of its participating corporations would ever actually adopt a permissionless structure, in which asset ownership is not “gatekept” by a company, and all data lives publicly, on a blockchain. “This is a very difficult thing for these companies to do,” said Siu. “ Web2 companies rely on their exclusive access to data.”
Siu believes that the business model of companies like Meta is fundamentally incompatible with the notion of a decentralized, open metaverse, in which users, their data, and their digital belongings exist independently of any company, just like the clothes you wear are not owned or controlled by a given neighborhood you walk through. “An open metaverse allows for permissionless access, and the vast majority of these companies won't permit this at the start I think,” said Siu.
The word “permissionless,” popular among Web3-native advocates of an open metaverse, appears nowhere in the Forum’s materials. Meta did not respond to Decrypt’s request for comment on this story.
One of Animoca’s principal projects is The Sandbox, a prominent metaverse platform that has sold almost $500 million worth of digital land to date, according to data aggregated on Dune Analytics. The platform’s COO and co-founder, Sebastien Borget, told Decrypt that the Metaverse Standards Forum never reached out to or consulted him prior to Tuesday’s announcement. Siu and Greene were likewise never contacted by the Forum; Siu noted that among the Forum’s 35 founding members, “there is a notable absence of Web3 and blockchain-native businesses.”
The Forum’s founding statement notes that any organization is welcome to join its ranks. Whether Web3-native companies devoted to building an open metaverse will find its mission to be worth their time, or genuinely consistent with their goals, is another question.