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Saturday, October 1, 2022

Opinion | Facebook’s Metaverse Is No Replacement for the Real World

Just call me an old man, a troglodyte, a Luddite, whatever.

I have no interest in becoming part of a “metaverse.” That is the future Mark Zuckerberg’s troubled Facebook is aiming toward as it renames itself Meta. And what is this Metaverse, you may ask? The New York Times explains:

“Mr. Zuckerberg painted a picture of the metaverse as a clean, well-lit virtual world, entered with virtual and augmented reality hardware at first and more advanced body sensors later on, in which people can play virtual games, attend virtual concerts, go shopping for virtual goods, collect virtual art, hang out with each others’ virtual avatars and attend virtual work meetings.”

That sounds absolutely ridiculous. And terrible. As with all new things, they appeal to some, maybe to millions, maybe even to most. But I have had to put my foot down, and I’ve actually been doing it a little at a time for a while now.

I keep telling myself that I must live in the here and now, that social media, in many ways, poisons our capacity to do that.

Don’t get me wrong, social media has many virtues, and I have not and will not turn away from it completely. After carefully curating the people, institutions and outlets that I follow, I now encounter more information than I could ever have imagined, more information than I can process. It is an embarrassment of riches, really.

Furthermore, social media is another publishing platform, and as a person who produces content that is published, social media was another outlet for me. I could publish mini-takes, things too short or insubstantial for a column or a segment of television.

I started my career in journalism as a designer. I still like design. But it’s not a suitable topic for my column here or my television job. So I sometimes post on social media about it.

Keeping up with and connecting with friends and family has never been easier, although I must admit that the most valuable and meaningful social networks to me at the moment are simple text groups.

That said, social media has so much ugliness, so much envy and covetousness, so much misinformation and manipulation, that its prominence in my life, it became clear to me, held more problems than benefits.

I have attempted to reorient myself primarily to the real world (even that feels strange to write). To write more things that I don’t immediately share. To write for the idea and not for viral impact — things that no one may “like” but that I still want to find a way to craft into their clearest form.

I want to share more pictures with the people I love and who love me — and not with the world, to get that world to react. The mere act of considering the response of strangers to personal posts of pictures is perverse. But it begs the question: If they are personal, why are you sharing them with strangers? So I have cut back on that. And I question my intentions more when I have the urge to post.

I even believe that social media was altering my sense of people: how they looked and lived and ate. Everyone was trying to one-up the next person. People too often looked perfect. They went on amazing vacations, lived in immaculate homes and ate exquisite dinners. Some of those photos may well reflect reality. But like most humans, we have our good days and our bad ones. Social media distorts that balance.

Even what is supposed to be positive can become oppressive and annoying, like the torrent of motivational memes and affirmations. Something about it rings hollow. Something about it presents as performative.

I have been pulling back from social media for a while now, using it mostly to advertise my column, TV segments and other ventures I’m involved in.

I must say that I feel like an addict finally getting clean.

I am surprised — and embarrassed that I am surprised — at how meaningful it is to me simply to be more present, to strike up conversations with strangers, not to feel that I need to document my every moment for a voracious virtualness, not to be so immersed in a screen that I miss the sunset.

I am more empathetic and diplomatic when I disagree with someone in person. Situations that I would have breezed by online, I linger on in person. The world is not perfect. It’s not curated and filtered, and returning to the reality that that imperfection makes the world special has caused a shift in me.

I now regret, though I try not to, years of wasted time in virtual space, doing all the things people told me I should: worrying about engagement, timing posts for optimization, reviewing analytics to figure out which things resonated and which didn’t.

I was continuously carving and crafting an altered, more “likable” image of myself, that in the end I deemed too controlled to be completely true.

So, as Facebook and others move toward the metaverse, I will choose to move toward a truer version of myself, one that lives more fully in the here and now.

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