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Social media could well be the defining feature of today’s digital age. It’s where we interact online with our friends, see advertisements, buy things, and - for marketers at least - spend a chunk of our professional lives.
One constant feature of social media is change, as new innovations adjust how these platforms work and how people interact with them - you only have to look at screenshots of what Facebook and YouTube looked like 10 years ago to see how different they were back then.
And that begs the question of what social media will look like in the future. Where are they heading?
Many experts believe that virtual worlds are the future of social media, but what does this mean, and how likely is this?
When people talk about virtual worlds, they’re referring to extended reality (XR). This is an umbrella term for any technology that integrates digital elements into your real world environment, and includes augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR) and mixed reality (MR).
Augmented reality enhances the real world by layering digital elements - like sound and graphics - over the physical. It’s fairly common online today, and you’ll no doubt be aware of things like snapchat filters and Pokemon Go.
Augmented reality is hardly the virtual worlds that you see in science fiction movies, but it is a step in the right direction.
But this technology is easy to access - all people need is a smart phone with a working camera. By contrast, virtual reality is a fully immersive digital world, accessible via VR goggles and other sensors, and mixed reality is - as its name suggests - a combination of the two.
Social media is today an indispensable part of life for the young and old alike. These platforms have undoubtedly revolutionized the internet, and have become more and more realistic over the years.
For, while it used to involve simple text, images and videos, today’s social media users can now enjoy anything from live videos to augmented reality-powered image filters. If you’ve ever added bunny ears or a dog’s nose to a selfie, then you know what this is.
Ultimately, this means that virtual worlds are already integrated into social media, but it doesn’t stop there.
Imagine that, instead of logging on to social media through a smartphone or tablet, you will access it through a virtual reality headset and handheld sensors.
Thanks to these devices, your online avatar will be able to incorporate things like precise body movements and voice input in real time.
This technology has actually been around for longer than you’d think, and Social VR has its roots in the gaming industry. Take Second Life, in which users create their own avatars - or digital representations - and then interact with other people in a completely virtual world and do everything they can do in real life.
Crucially, these online worlds are not just games - they can be massive online communities. World of Warcraft currently has about 26 million users. Fortnite has over 350 million registered players. 11 million people log into Animal Crossing each month.
These virtual worlds give us some idea of what virtual social networking will look like. And, though the big social media platforms have not yet fully rolled out extended reality technology, they are investing huge amounts of money in this goal.
Facebook, for instance, purchased Oculus Rift - one of the world’s leading virtual reality companies - back in 2014. Zuckerberg changed its company’s name to Meta and is aggressively promoting the Metaverse.
He certainly believes that virtual worlds are the future of social media, and his company is certainly powerful enough to achieve this - who are we to argue with him on this?
What’s more, a surprising 56% of social media influencers are working in the metaverse, while 60% see themselves as creators in the virtual world (IZEA Worldwide) - and where they go, their followers follow.
Or maybe this shouldn’t be a surprise, given the benefits that this technology can bring to social media platforms.
Firstly, they improve communication online and have the potential to reduce loneliness, with people who have used this technology claiming that they feel more connected to other users - great at a time post-pandemic when people are spending more time online than ever before.
And secondly, social VR helps users to meet like-minded people - with a wealth of online communities meaning that there’s something for everyone. And while this has long existed thanks to Twitter, Reddit and so forth, social VR just improves the experience.
At present, a key limitation to the integration of digital realities into social media is the cost of virtual reality devices but they are getting cheaper.
And if they are adopted widely, we could well reach a point where the virtual and real worlds become blurred - how would you know what is real and what isn’t, for instance, if you never take off your virtual reality or augmented reality goggles?
This would undoubtedly have a huge impact on society at large, and the potential consequences make for a fascinating discussion - though maybe for another time.
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