A key element of Meta’s metaverse push is the use of digital avatars in more ways, as it looks to turn these virtual representations into more habitual interaction tools, in all aspects.
The main platform in this respect is VR, with users interacting via their cartoonish proxies within wholly immersive spaces. But Meta also wants to enable non-VR users to engage in the same way, with the characters that they choose to represent themselves becoming a more prominent extension of their personality and presence.
To do that, Meta needs to make its avatars more engaging, and more customizable, which it’s already doing with the implementation of 3D avatars on Facebook, Messenger and within stickers on Instagram.
And now, Meta’s taking the next steps, with some users now seeing avatar reactions as an option within Instagram Stories.
As you can see in this example, shared by user Pururaj Dutta, some users are now seeing a new prompt to use either ‘Emoji’ or ‘Avatar’ reactions to Stories. Tap on the ‘Avatar’ option and you’ll be directed to create your custom avatar character (if you haven’t already) before being presented with a range of custom sticker responses, using your character.
It’s another way to get more users creating custom characters, which, again, is part of Meta’s broader push to turn this into a more common, habitual engagement behavior, with a view to these depictions becoming the way that you represent yourself online.
Which would then have a range of expanded applications.
Interacting within virtual worlds – or the metaverse – is the main push, but the broader implementation of custom digital characters will also provide new opportunities for Meta to sell virtual items within its evolving spaces.
For example, Snapchat already has a range of corporate-sponsored items available for its Bitmoji avatar characters, enabling users to dress up their avatars in adidas, Nike and other well-known brands.
New @Nike looks coming in ????????????https://t.co/bxoFmTHqTk pic.twitter.com/wHVWfK4uoU— Bitmoji (@Bitmoji) December 1, 2021
It doesn’t cost anything, right now, to dress your character up in these digital clothing variations, but the eventual expansion of avatar usage will see increased demand for exclusive items and customizations, that the platforms will be able to charge for, as people look to adopt more unique, more elusive variations that can give them a level of prestige within the virtual realm.
That’s already happening in existing metaverse-type spaces, with limited edition skins in Fortnite and Roblox enabling users to display their experience and skill via earned or purchased avatar clothing and additions.
Indeed, a virtual Gucci bag sold for $4,000 on Roblox last year, and it’s this next-level push that platforms and brands are eyeing as a major opportunity, enabling them to not only promote real world items via digital depictions, but to also create a whole new marketplace of entirely digital goods.
That may seem like an odd concept to many. Why would people pay for a bag that can only be displayed in a digital world – you can’t even open it or put anything in it?
That may be true, but we’re already witnessing an emerging marketplace for such items, in the rise of NFTs, which has died down somewhat more recently, but serves as an initial signal of the next stage of digital commerce, where people will pay to own something that’s not physical, but can be attached to their online persona.
Most NFT projects, however, are useless. The NFT market has quickly been flooded by scammers looking to make a quick buck, as opposed to providing a new opportunity for artists to make money from their work, and every swindle and controversy further erodes confidence in the space, which has turned many ‘investors’ away.
I say ‘investors’ as that’s what many NFT enthusiasts seem themselves as – suddenly every tech bro and Gary Vee acolyte has become an art critic that sees future value in these unique works, which they believe will appreciate over time.
But they won’t. The true value of NFTs, as a concept, is in facilitating the purchase of virtual items that can then be linked to your identity, with, ideally, the capability to then take your virtual items with you across VR realms and spaces - like wearing your Roblox character skin to a work meeting via Zoom.
In this sense, NFTs have value as a framework, of sorts, for purchasing useable, displayable virtual items. Random profile pictures of monkeys don’t have that value – and hand-drawn pictures by Gary Vee definitely won’t hold unique interest beyond his legion of fans.
In essence, current NFT collectors are only right on one thing – that they’re early, getting in on the ground floor on a trend that will become more significant over time. The problem is that the ‘investments’ that they’re making now won’t hold any real value in the next stage – which is why every NFT project is now trying to add in value via community benefits and access, which won’t be worth much in future.
NFTs as an infrastructure for purchasing virtual clothing, however, now that has potential, and it may well be that owning a virtual Gucci bag that can be attached to your identity will have real, appreciating value as the use of these avatars, and the adoption of virtual worlds expands.
But people won’t be visiting virtual art galleries and bidding on first edition Bored Apes. Actually, maybe Bored Apes will hold some value as a sign of the times, while works by Beeple, for example, also have a cultural value that could see them retain some significance. But the vast majority of profile picture NFT projects will be a fad, a marker of the next stage, but not, in themselves, a valuable artifact for the next generation.
But no one wants to miss the boat. Many investors dismissed Facebook early on, and missed out on buying in, the same with Twitter and many other significant tech shifts. That’s why people are jumping into NFTs, hoping to latch onto the next stage – and while they are indeed early in this sense, they’re likely too early to be going all in.
But the next level is coming, and digital products will be a thing. Meta’s looking to find more ways to fuel this shift. And eventually, that will work, one way or another.