Our relationship with technology and digital communication is taking another bizarre twist. The smartphones in our pocket promised to bring us closer together. But we increasingly communicate with emojis rather than words, and many would sooner leave an audio message than answer a call and have a real-time conversation. Are we increasingly hiding behind our tech?
Big tech is on a mission to convince the world that turning ourselves into cartoons is the future of online interaction. Early adopters are already preparing for life in the Metaverse by taking out a mortgage to claim virtual land. There is also a growing community of interior, architecture, and fashion designers ready to make you and your online home stand out from the crowd. But the big question is, who really wants to live in a virtual world and live their life as a Memoji-like 3D Avatar?
Albert Mehrabian, a researcher of body language, famously found that communication is 55% nonverbal, 38% vocal, and only 7% words. So roughly translated, this means we miss out on 90% of visual communication cues when communicating digitally. When you also remove tone of voice and intonation, it's easy to see why there is so much misunderstanding and division online.
Although the science of communication suggests otherwise, and Apple's Memoji appeared to fall flat back in 2017, Meta enthusiastically announced its rollout of 3D avatars to Facebook, Messenger, and Instagram. In addition, the tech behemoth proudly revealed that it was expanding its Avatars so that they better reflect the billions of unique people on this planet and have also added assistive devices for people with disabilities.
The aim is to empower users to create a new virtual self that enables them to be represented online the way they want. All while making Instagram stories more engaging and DMs interesting again. The NFL quickly hopped on board the announcement, enabling Meta users to dress their avatars in a range of Super Bowl LVI jerseys.
However, if we dare to step back from the press releases, is there an appetite for what feels like a rip-off of Snapchat's Bitmoji avatars from 2016?
Despite promising 3D avatars and immersive meetings coming to Microsoft Teams in November, the emojis they teased are still a work in progress. However, even when it's up and running, how many teams are asking for a collaborative virtual environment where cartoon versions of themselves work through an Excel spreadsheet in real-time?
The logistics and technical challenges of getting physical or hybrid meetings up and running can be notoriously challenging. So, many will rightfully ask, how will creating a virtual office, setting up the presentation, and ensuring everyone has the right technology in place be any more efficient?
There is an inconvenient truth that universally, employees do not like back-to-back meetings. Video conferencing promised fewer meetings, but we ended up walking directly into zoom fatigue by carrying bad practices into virtual meetings. But is strapping VR headsets to our heads and turning our bosses into legless floaty animated avatars the solution we have been looking for?
Big tech's obsession with the Metaverse and 3D avatars is beginning to feel like an identity crisis. Tech-savvy audiences are motivated by the problems technology solves and how it will make their life easier, but they are seldom swayed by the hype around the next big thing.
Sure, it’s still very early days, and the Metaverse is still very much a work in progress. However, glitchy apps built on gimmicks rather than solving problems feels reminiscent of Apple's app store's arrival in 2008 when the iBeer app turned iPhones into a glass of beer.
Users have a long history of rejecting everything from overpriced and overhyped 3D televisions and foldable smartphones. More worrying for Meta is the lack of faith from investors, who caused the company to lose nearly $200 billion of market value in an afternoon. So, the elephant in the room is who uses or wants Memoji-like 3D Avatars?
Big tech is promising everyone a utopia in the shape of a fake digital world where we follow virtual influencers and reduce our bosses to comical-looking 3D avatars. The problem is that the success of the Metaverse is highly dependent on the destruction of the real world as we know it. Only then will people have a reason to strap a headset on their faces and hide in an alternatively digitally created reality.
Before the days of creating digital versions of ourselves, Nirvana's Kurt Cobain famously once said wanting to be someone else is a waste of the person you are. But as more and more people invest time and money to make their avatars look like authentic digital versions of themselves, you could be forgiven for thinking, but what's the point?
My avatar cuts a lonely figure preparing for Superbowl Sunday in the Metaverse in an NFL-sponsored jersey. Maybe one day I will find myself half-awake or on autopilot thinking, this is not my beautiful house, and stop to ask, how did I get here? Despite advances in technology, Talking Heads arguably predicted our destiny in 1981 when David Byrne repeated his mantra, same as it ever was.