The Metaverse: Science Fiction or a Realistic Opportunity for Associations?

Should you pay attention to the metaverse? It depends on whom you ask. On one side, you have the loud, enthusiastic voices of Web3 and cryptocurrency venture capitalists, Mark Zuckerberg, and a sycophantic media. On the other side, you have quieter, cynical voices like journalist Ed Zitron, who says the metaverse is “so far from existing that we may as well be talking about flying cars.”

What the heck is the metaverse?

To get your metaversical bearings, check out these explainer articles by Meagan Loyst and Aaron Frank. The TL;DR version: the metaverse is an interactive, immersive virtual environment experienced by using avatars and virtual reality (VR) or augmented reality (AR) headsets.

Taking the buzz down a level, analyst Ben Thompson said, “The Metaverse already exists, it just happens to be called the Internet… it is the Internet best experienced in virtual reality.” Zitron kills the buzz—as he will throughout this post:

“The reason that everybody speaks in such vague terms about the Metaverse is that they’re trying to avoid the uncomfortable truth that the Metaverse is either decades away or, for the most part, completely sucks.”

Alrighty, then!


The metaverse hype—or is it?

Metaverse evangelists claim it’s already here in virtual games like Fortnite and Roblox, virtual environments that hosted Travis Scott and Lil Nas X concerts. But if that’s the metaverse, then it’s merely avatar-based virtual spaces. Zitron pointed out, “The Metaverse isn’t ‘the future’ if it’s just different iterations of talking to people using a digital avatar.”

Whatever it is, the metaverse is already big business. Visitors to existing metaverses, like Decentraland, use cryptocurrency to buy real estate, clothes for their avatar, and tokens for admission to concerts and fashion shows. Michael B. Horn at Education Next said, “Much of what passes for metaverse hype right now is still virtual reality clothed in new marketing language.”

Facebook ramped up the media hype when it rebranded itself as Meta. As for Facebook’s metaverse initiatives, Zitron said:

“Reporters covering Zuckerberg and his ‘metaverse’… are gambling that Zuckerberg knows what he’s doing, that he’s the innovative genius that they’ve thought he was the whole time, as opposed to the CEO of a company that has acquired all of its ‘innovation’.”

Zitron believes Zuckerberg will sit back and wait for others to do the innovating, then swoop in and buy the successful ones, like he’s done many times before.

But, said Zitron: “Even the analysts are getting in on the hype, with Gartner’s most spurious analysis yet claiming that ‘25% of people will spend at least one hour per day in the metaverse by 2026’.” McKinsey research, published in mid-June, calculates metaverse spending will hit $5 trillion by 2030.

Here's the money quote from Zitron: “Every major influencer-investor—the ones that seemingly do not do anything other than post on Twitter and release  4-hour-long podcasts—has done some sort of 30-tweet thread about how web3 is the future of the economy, but also communities, and that is where the metaverse fits in.”

FOMO is a factor in the metaverse hype since all the people who missed out on investing in Bitcoin several years ago don’t want to miss the next big thing. Zitron again: “And just like NFTs, these companies aren’t really focused on doing things you need or want to do better, but in trying to sell you a way to remove the Fear Of Missing Out On The Future, even if the product in question is bad.”

The second coming of Second Life or real competition for your association?

If you’ve been thinking, wait, the metaverse sounds like Second Life, you’re right. Second Life never took off, but things are different now. VR and AR are already used as educational tools. Thanks to gaming, online learning, and virtual meetings, the audience is primed for bigger virtual experiences. You may have even visited an avatar-based event space, like Virbela or The Echo with its spatial chat functionality.

Already the metaverse is making its way into the lives of ‘non-techies.’ Students and teachers at the Optima Classical Academy, an online charter school based in Florida, will meet this year as avatars on a VR platform. Students will be sent a success kit, including Oculus virtual headsets, notebooks, supplies, and literature. In this version of the metaverse, they’ll attend live lectures, work in small groups, and take virtual field trips through space or the deep ocean, and through time to significant historical events.

Other educational metaverses are popping up:

•    Labster: VR labs for high school and college students
•    FluentWorlds: 3D immersive online language learning
•    Kai XR: virtual field trips
•    EDUmetaverse: virtual worlds designed for education
•    Dreamscape Learn: virtual education from a partnership of Arizona State University and Hollywood/Disney types

Accenture is already in the metaverse. Its virtual campus, Nth Floor, is an immersive experience for learning and networking. Now, what association wouldn’t want that? Staff first visit it during new employee onboarding. It has a central conference room, virtual boardroom, and monorails that transport avatars to various destinations on campus.

If your members are educators, you might already know about this new competitor in the metaverse. Eduverse by k20 is a Web3 virtual environment where educators choose their own adventure:

•    Connect as avatars
•    Learn and earn NFT micro-credentials
•    Trade and sell content
•    Find jobs
•    Explore resources
•    Earn tokens (metaverse currency)

Here’s the plan: “k20 aims to be the largest networking, learning, and career hub for educators, with the most comprehensive directory of professional learning.” Uh oh. Will the Eduverse steal members away from associations? What unique value proposition does your association have to compare with this type of experience? Value that all your members experience, not just the ones who go to in-person events.


Opportunities in the metaverse

What’s something members and customers could experience in your metaverse that they wouldn’t be able to experience elsewhere? If you identify that, the metaverse is worth exploring, otherwise it’s just a shiny toy for now. You can also identify what Zitron calls “extensions of actions that we perform in real life” that you can deliver in a convenient virtual environment.

Look at what the Eduverse offers the educator profession:
•    Connect
•    Learn and earn microcredentials
•    Share, trade and sell content in a marketplace
•    Find jobs
•    Explore resources
•    Earn tokens

Do any of your market segments want these benefits? Can you find the technology to deliver these benefits online now? Certainly, a learning management system can help you with #2. Talk to industry partners and consultants about possibilities. Think of your early efforts as Phase 1 of a long-term plan.

Most people, even introverts, love connecting with others, but don’t always make time for it. How can technology help you enhance the online community experience? Perhaps you replicate the old-fashioned ‘drop in on a neighbor for coffee’ with impromptu one-on-one video meetings. Or create a virtual coffee shop for avatars.

Metaverses give people the freedom to walk around and choose their own adventure. Get to know the interests of your members and customers so you can recommend relevant courses, webinars, articles, and products to them. On your website, display learning pathways that lead to different career goals.

In a virtual space, perhaps members pass by an office or worksite where a sponsored product demonstration is happening. Or they can visit a lounge where they can join a discussion or meetup with industry VIPs or experts.

Most museums offer virtual tours. During happy hours at virtual conferences, attendees went on virtual tours of the original host city. Education is more engaging when it’s visually stimulating, and even more so when it’s social. The metaverse will give people a safe way to practice new skills or experiment with new methods either on their own or with a group of peers.

Accenture discovered a benefit in their metaverse that could help attendees of virtual conferences, webinars and meetings focus more on what’s in front of them. “When immersed in the virtual campus, colleagues say they have more meaningful conversations as they are not distracted by emails or pings.” Aha, virtual retreats are possible!

You can imagine the possibilities in the metaverse for your association. But now switch the focus to your industry. What are the metaverse possibilities for your industry/profession? Who is making people aware of these opportunities and providing training for new skills?

The metaverse is like science fiction coming to life right now. Remember way back, if you can, to the years before the internet, social media, or Zoom came along. Could you have imagined how they would change our personal and professional lives? Eventually, something will emerge from all these early experiments in the metaverse. You should think about future virtual or metaverse scenarios so you and your association are mentally prepared when it’s time to act.


Creative Commons licensed art by Ben Holfeld


virtual education
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