On March 10th, 2022, I was contacted by Joe Castaldo, a business reporter for The Globe and Mail (which bills itself as “Canada’s National Newspaper”). He was writing up a story about businesses entering the metaverse, and the current metaverse hype cycle, and he asked me if I would be willing to be interviewed.
After checking in with my union representatives at the university, who gave me the all-clear to go ahead, I was interviewed for an hour via telephone. The Globe and Mail had given Joe a Meta Quest 2 wireless VR headset, so a couple of weeks later, I gave him a guided tour of two popular social VR platforms, VRChat and AltspaceVR.
Well, Joe’s article was published in The Globe and Mail today, titled Is the metaverse the future of the internet? A Globe journalist steps inside to find out (if you should hit a paywall, here is an archived version).
I’m not going to reproduce the entire newspaper article here; I was mentioned in the final few paragraphs:
For Ryan Schultz, the widespread interest in the metaverse is a little weird. “My obscure, niche hobby has suddenly gone mainstream,” he told me. A reference librarian with the University of Manitoba, he spends a few hours every week strapped into a headset or exploring desktop-based worlds, and has been blogging about it for years.
Mr. Schultz finds the speculative nature of the digital land rush in some worlds off-putting. “People are investing in this basically as a flex and as a boast to their friends that they can afford these artificially limited items,” he said. Businesses with virtual office space, meanwhile, are likely spending money on a “really fancy three-dimensional brochure.”
He’s seen much of it before. Corporations flocked to Second Life when it took off in the 2000s. Coca-Cola installed soft drink machines, Toyota set up a car dealership, American Apparel built a clothing store, and IBM established an island for employee recruitment and training.
It wasn’t long before the corporate enthusiasm died. “Nobody came to visit these locations, because the people who were already in Second Life didn’t care,” Mr. Schultz said.
He understands the appeal of virtual worlds, though. When he first discovered Second Life, he spent hours there each day. Away from the computer, he has jokingly called himself an “overweight, divorced, gay librarian with diabetes.” At 58, he feels his body growing older, and he’s struggled with depression so bad he’s taken leaves from work. “I kinda suck at this whole reality business,” he wrote on his blog.
In Second Life, Mr. Schultz loved building avatars – angels, supermodels and a Na’vi from, well, Avatar. There was solace in becoming someone else. During the pandemic, he’s met his social needs through virtual reality, and a mental-health app became a lifeline. “I can put on my headset, join a group, and use cognitive behavioural therapy techniques to work through issues and problems, and it’s extremely powerful,” he said. “You feel like you’re really present.”
For those of us who are not already immersed, such moments are likely a long way off. I searched high and low for meaning and connection in the metaverse, but mostly found empty branding experiences, a speculative frenzy around digital assets, and people who were just as curious as I was to find out what this was all about, and were still searching for answers.
But given the relentless enthusiasm of those trying to turn the metaverse into some kind of reality, there will be plenty of chances to try again, for better or worse.
I think that Joe did a good job of describing the metaverse in a way that newspaper readers could easily understand, and there are a couple of videos included in the digital version of the article which made me laugh at certain points, as Joe and his producer Patrick Dell navigated Decentraland and Horizon Worlds!
I also appreciated that the online article linked out to my ever-popular list of social VR platforms and virtual worlds. I’m not really expecting a spike in traffic to my blog (I didn’t get one when I was interviewed by a writer for New Yorker magazine in 2019), but it was an interesting experience, nonetheless.
(By the way, I do receive more and more requests to be interviewed lately, because of my blog. I turn most of them down, but I said yes to this one, because The Globe and Mail is a major Canadian newspaper, and one which I read often.)
P.S. The mental health app mentioned in the quote above is called Help Club; here’s the blogpost which I wrote about this self-help social VR app for mental health.