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The metaverse hype will need to account for screen fatigue in an increasingly digital world

Cover image for The metaverse hype will need to account for screen fatigue in an increasingly digital world

Photo: Martin Katler

Photo of Hanna Kahlert
by Hanna Kahlert

The last two years have completely reoriented the dynamic between digital-first and in-person life. Digital entertainment has boomed under successive lockdowns, streaming has dominated consumption formats, and creation has been shifted from big studios to at-home DIY – in music, video, art, and even games.

In the wake of all this, the hype for Web 3 is growing, with anticipated groundbreakers including the metaverse and NFTs. The metaverse in particular looks to be the key shift in how people interact with their own increasingly digital lives, largely allowing most functions of ‘in person’ activity to be conducted purely on digital.

After two years of being digital-first, it is tempting to expect this trajectory of digital migration to continue steadily upwards. However, it is important to remember that this shift to digital-first activity happened due to a global pandemic and lockdown restrictions – not a cultural preference for being online. As restrictions lift, a cultural renegotiation is happening, wherein people are choosing which of these newly-habituated digital activities to keep, and how to fit them into their broader lives.

Looking back at the world in 2019 cannot provide much indication of what comes next, as so much has already changed. Remote working, for example, used to be a ‘millennial dream’, but it is now normalised and likely to continue to some extent. However, even in the work environment, many are expressing a preference for in-person experiences. Perhaps the daily commute is gone for good, but in its place is rising flexible working, with more personalised combinations of remote and in-office routines. Similarly, virtual concerts – the only way to experience live music for much of the past two years – are unlikely to fully replace live events, but will play a role for those who cannot travel as far, or for those who simply do not have the time. Digital has become a tool with which to diversify our experiences and activities, not replace them – and the value of physical, face-to-face experiences is more powerful now, in the wake of Covid, than ever.

The idea of screen fatigue is one that should be heavy on the minds of everyone who is hoping to jump on the digital-first world building. It is now, already, not uncommon to hear of tiredness from working on a laptop all day, resulting in consumer preferences to do something outside rather than start up their PS5 (for example). The astronomical trajectory of chess sales after Queen’s Gambit aired in 2020 already hinted at the proclivity for ‘lean-through’ behaviour breaking out of the digital realm, and into the analogue one; the rise in popularity of vinyl similarly hints at the importance of scarcity in creating cultural value, and the eagerness with which consumers, now accustomed to having everything on-demand, are now embracing unique, physical experiences of consumption.

The metaverse is now walking a shaky line of, perhaps, thinking too much of itself. Web 3 will see more and more of people’s formerly in-person lives taking place online – but it cannot expect a fully-committed migration. Combined with the existing issues that social media use has with mental health, developers must be careful to consider that consumers will be finding a balance between digital and in-person activity – and will be particular in choosing which of those digital habits will be worth their time to keep.

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