Many of us already inhabit mini-metaverses full of personalised algorithms, and few of us are ready to take off the headset.
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In one morning I came across three stories that made me think twice about the ‘metaverse’. It’s not some abstract future dystopia—it’s already here. Many of us already inhabit mini-metaverses full of personalised algorithms, and few of us are ready to take off the headset.
The first story was a news article explaining why so many young men in their 20s and 30s are regularly taking Viagra due to insecurity, porn addiction, and erectile dysfunction.
Putting it down or getting it up
I’m going to do my best not to sound like a prude - I’m just going to make some observations. Today you’ll see me talk a lot about things that skew our baselines. Porn is one of them, due to its effect both on your dopamine levels and your expectations of an acceptable sexual experience.
Smartphones and the ubiquity of internet made porn accessible 24/7 at school, at work, and at home. As the consuming population has multiplied, so have their tastes, and the variety of content available. The age at which many young people first develop an addiction to porn has progressively lowered. Over 30% of the men taking prescribed medication for erectile dysfunction are now aged under 32.
You’ve likely already come across news stories talking about how this generation is having a lot less sex on average, and staying virgins for far longer. It seems many college kids are either ridden with anxiety or getting their kick from porn instead. The ones still pursuing sex are increasingly relying on drugs like viagra to do it—a trend fuelled more by fear than fun.
This newspaper quote stood out:
“I felt like my penis was about to explode,” says James. “I was incredibly faint.” He recalls the blood capillaries on the surface of his eyes looming into focus as he stared into the darkness. He was deeply uncomfortable [….] Now in his thirties, James still takes Viagra regularly. […] as many as half of his male friends have told him they take Viagra, and he suspects that even more do so in secret.
This is one example of a mini-metaverse. Existing in a space where digital echo-chambers bleed into reality. Everyone you know suffers similar addictions, similar anxieties, and turns to the same solutions—whether they’re practically useful or not. Whether they're fun, or not. Whether they cause you intense pain and discomfort, or not.
The second example was a fun thread explaining that the latest beauty trends involve permanent make-up, tattooed lips, microblading, injected dermal fillers, chemical peels and eyebrow laminations.
No matter how painful these treatments may be, and no matter how often procedures might go wrong, if you’re in the mini-metaverse where these things are vogue, it’s worth the risk. Dentures used to be for 80-year-olds. Now they’re for 18-year-olds.
It doesn't matter if it's cruel if it's cool. It doesn't matter if the surgery is irreversible. Once the idea is in your mini-metaverse then you'll start seeing it everywhere. And the pain of insufficiency feels greater than your predicted pain of regret.
The mini-metaverse problem
Social media isn’t an amorphous blob. Algorithms have become more and more personalised to show you the things that will get the most reaction from you specifically. The world’s brightest minds are gravitating towards companies which make billions trading on the currency of your attention. If they can capture your attention, they can drive your actions.
Your Twitter and Instagram experiences are different to your neighbours. What you see on Netflix is completely different from what those around you see. When you watch certain films on a flight to China or Qatar, certain scenes may be cut completely. We may even have a possible future where film studios record ten different endings and serve them up algorithmically based on the kind of ending Netflix knows you will enjoy.
Let me break that down for you.
I shared a thread the other day explaining why Netflix doesn’t actively market most of their shows. They have a high level of conviction that they can reach most of the necessary eyeballs in-app.
Netflix is trying to serve up content they think you'll love - they can do this because they aggregate data on what you watch, what you quit, and what you consider.
But the real magic is that they dynamically update thumbnails to show what you like.
To the Netflix algorithm, this is what the homepage actually looks like.
The suggested titles are related to what you've watched before, what's popular in your area, and what people like you watch.
But then, Netflix turns on their magic to change how shows and movies show up for you.
Here are the 9 most popular thumbnails for Stranger Things.
Each one highlights a different aspect of the show that might be relevant to a particular audience, even if you have no idea what it's about.
Let's say you've never seen Good Will Hunting, but Netflix wants you to watch it.
If Netflix knows you love romantic movies they'll show you the artwork with Matt Damon and Minnie Driver.
If you love comedies, you'll see artwork featuring Robin Williams, a well-known comedian.
All of the algorithms' assumptions are dynamically updated every time you open Netflix, and even while you scroll.
If you recognise Uma Thurman, then Pulp Fiction is about Uma Thurman.
If you love John Travolta, then Pulp Fiction is about John Travolta.
Every Netflix user is teaching the algorithm something new. Sometimes they'll test a piece of artwork across a broad audience, but they'll optimise for the cohorts who click to narrow down.
They're obsessive about only marketing to people who have a high chance of watching.
Netflix only markets the original properties that they believe will be broadly appealing enough to warrant broad marketing.
For everything else, they rely on a highly-personalized algorithm to put their movies and shows in front of the eyes that matter.
I’m no luddite—many of these innovations are fantastic, and in most cases, they confer a benefit to users. The outstanding question is what that convenience costs, and if it’s a price you might like to pay if you had the choice.
The cost of personalised recommendations showing things you’re guaranteed to love, is there are no more surprises. You’ll see less things that are unexpected. On every screen you turn to, your favourite platforms are optimising for what you already know and love, and feeding you more of it.
What does objective reality look like in a world where every screen you interact with revolves around engaging your interest and driving monetisable behaviour?
A part of me wonders if the reason we’re becoming increasingly polarised as a society is because we’re stuck in mini-metaverses - feedback loops that, instead of showing us all the possible alternatives, only seek to reflect back to us the things we already love or hate.
Shadows on cave walls
This leads to my third example. The story of a mild-mannered young boy who wanted to become a pro Youtuber. He started making Mukbang videos - a genre that revolves around the shock factor and voyeuristic arousal of watching someone eat copious amounts of food.
24 year old Nicholas Perry’s journey to Youtube fame saw him quit making vegan videos nobody watched to eating in massive quantities online, egged on by fan challenges of increasing scale. The clicks poured in, and his audience grew. He blew up online but is also now 400lbs with serious health complications.
Algorithms reward extreme behaviour. The more you seek their validation, the further you will be pushed. There is no such thing as enough. Whether you’re motivated by sex, money, fame or convenience, there will always be another lever you can pull to get more of what you desire.
Gurwinder Bhoghal, who first shared this case study, explained it using the paradigm of audience capture. He describes the issue like this:
To understand how, we must consider how people come to define themselves. A person's identity is being constantly refined, so it needs constant feedback. That feedback typically comes from other people, not so much by what they say they see as by what we think they see. We develop our personalities by imagining ourselves through others' eyes, using their borrowed gazes like mirrors to dress ourselves.
I’d submit an alternative perspective.
We have already unwittingly stumbled into mini-metaverses. The mini-metaverse is a void between virtual and digital worlds, where reality becomes abstracted and filtered through the lens of whichever platform we interact with. And in doing so we’ve fallen in love with the shadows on the cave wall.
In Plato’s allegory of the cave, Socrates describes a group of people who have spent their entire lives chained inside a cave, facing a blank wall. A fire behind the prisoners casts shadows onto the wall of anything passing in front of it, and there are puppeteers holding up objects in front of the fire, projecting a display on the wall. The people do not see these objects, and only know them by the shadows they reflect. They give the shadow objects names, and this becomes their reality. In Plato’s Cave, the shadows represent the reality we perceive naturally through our senses, while the objects themselves are the reality we can intuit through logic. In David’s cave, the shadows are the algorithms we consume, and the objects are the actions people take in the real world.
The issue is that more and more people are dancing with shadows instead of acting on reality.
The shifting bell curve
The further you go into your mini-metaverse, the more your definition of normal changes. Abundance has allowed us to experience more extreme outcomes and create higher highs in every way.
We spend so much time staring at abstractions that we become caricatures of reality, in the same way a puppet bird cannot contain the detailed fidelity of a bird. We are creating in real life the most extreme reflection of a digital world that runs on incentivised polarity.
When only extreme behaviours are rewarded with the validation of clicks, likes and social status, people are incentivised to push moral boundaries in order to find ‘alpha’—an outsized return. If you want extreme outcomes, you must do extreme things.
If you want to look beautiful, it is no longer enough to simply wear makeup in a world where the heights of beauty have transcended the natural distribution.
The beauty of the most popular models on Instagram can’t be replicated with items you can pick up at your local supermarket. The bell curve has shifted violently to the left. You may have been happy with how you looked before, but now the upper bound is rising. The more unrealistic the expectations you have to compete with become, the worse you feel in comparison.
As the baseline shifts, those trying to reach the peak of perfection by ‘skating ahead of the puck’ are falling off the side of the map. Botched surgeries become memes. If one treatment goes wrong, you must do another to fix it. Even those who don’t want to play the game must race to reclaim a moderate position, and avoid looking too bland by comparison.
To be virile and lauded as a sexual partner, your god-given endowment is no longer enough.
The more wealth you become aware of, the less your salary feels like enough.
The more time you spend in your mini-metaverse, the more your bell curve shifts.
Our lifestyle crunch has collided with aspiration inflation, as more people look to transcend their station.
We’re overstimulated, wired out of our minds, and reality is shifting under our feet.
The self-consuming feedback loop
Black holes of digital feedback loops have dragged once-moderate thinkers into a spiralling singularity referred to as the culture war. This prison only exists for the people most obsessed with it. The more you care, the more trapped you feel. And your echo chamber is full of fellow prisoners chained to the wall, screaming at the shadows.
The Flanderisation of Jordan Peterson is perhaps the most interesting case study.
Flanderisation, named after the popular Simpsons character, is when you take a personality quirk of a character and exaggerate it over time until the character becomes an outlandish caricature. Ned Flanders in The Simpsons was originally depicted as a mild-mannered Christian neighbour—the contrast in every way to Homer Simpson. However, as the seasons progressed, his role morphed into a comic relief bible-bashing evangelist.
That’s exactly how Jordan Peterson’s character arc has played out. At one point, he was a mild-mannered professor—the surrogate father, teaching young men to make their beds, be virtuous, and not tell lies. What he represents now, I can’t quite say, but the recent video he recorded regarding a Twitter ban encapsulates the caricature perfectly. The video itself becomes the meme—no editing required.
There’s a useful interview with Rebel Wisdom and Ken Wilber discussing Peterson’s slide along the ideological scale.
Here’s my take:
Virality on social media isn’t free. To be seen on social media, you must be capable of categorisation—not just by humans, but by algorithms.
If you want your message to spread, you must become discoverable. To be discovered, your ideas must be simple enough to be digested at a glance. This requires stripping back nuance and colour depth until you have a simple palette of recognisable shapes.
Complex polygons become circles and squares. Nuanced ideas become slogans and dog-whistles. And that’s why many famous talking heads eventually become cartoons.
Developing a recognisable digital avatar requires an act of deliberate abstraction. The machines don’t appreciate nuance. In the real world, we each contain multitudes, but online, we splinter ourselves. In order to create widely consumable content, you must yourself be consumed.
A world without mirrors
If you have an iPhone, pick it up and take a selfie. Take a look. That’s not your reflection. That’s a digital image that went through at least 9 layers of processing before you even hit the shutter button. If you have a Samsung, there’s a button you can press that cleans up your zits and smooths out your face, giving you an instant airbrush. Open your video-sharing app of choice and there are filters that can make you look however you like. You post those photos on Instagram and say it’s you, but it’s not. That’s a digital avatar. You scroll, and you think you see your friends, but you don’t. Those are digital avatars. Welcome to your mini-metaverse.
What you see in your phone camera is not your reflection. What you write in your Twitter bio is not your life. Whatever truth these things hold is nothing compared to the depth of the real you.
You must find a way to look at yourself that is independent from what external sources reflect towards you. Especially sources that are algorithmically designed to make you feel a certain way, or take certain actions.
Reality will always look different outside your mini-metaverse, and as attractive as that world may be, once you allow your baselines to be reset, you may never find objective reality again. You may not even remember that one exists. If you occasionally take off your headset, the world may move on without you. And maybe that’s okay.