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Way Too New January 26, 2022

The Evolution of the Metaverse

A look at how virtual reality third spaces are changing in 2022 and beyond.

It goes without saying, but when we first launched The Webby Awards back in 1997, the internet was a very different place. There was no such thing as Google, Netscape Navigator was the world’s most popular browser, and the number of existing websites numbered in the low six-figures. It would still be ten years until the iPhone debuted in 2007, yet five years earlier in 1992, pioneering cyberpunk author  Neal Stephenson coined the term “metaverse” and published his best-selling novel Snow Crash dreaming of a future we’re only now glimpsing over the horizon.

Since our inception, The Webby Awards have been committed to honoring, celebrating, and exploring the best digital and online experiences around the world, and now at the dawn of the actual metaverse, the world is about to get infinitely larger. We’ve marveled as creative innovation has raced to keep up with technological advancements, and over the years we’ve tracked myriad inspiring projects that push the boundaries of the possible and make us rethink the ways in which we can create accessible, equitable, and inclusive new spaces.

As we come upon a potentially revolutionary new era in online interactivity, the need for a criteria and framework to understand the metaverse is ever more apparent. At The Webbys, we consider it our privilege to investigate the very forefront of tech and storytelling, and it’s our duty to evolve as the internet expands. That’s why we’re constantly ideating on new categories to capture all the incredible new work coming out of this brave new world.

To better honor this type of work, we have introduced new categories, including Games honors for Best Social Gaming Experience, Best Technical Achievement, Best User Experience, and Social Impact, Virtual & Remote honors for Best Performance, Best VR Video, Best Technical Achievement, Fashion & Retail, Media & Entertainment, and many more. Learn more about our new categories here.

In the world of Snow Crash, the cleverly named Hiro Protagonist is an active member of a community of extremely online individuals who regularly don digital avatars to congregate in a virtual third space accessed through high-tech home computers. Going strong since 2003, computer game Second Life captures much of what Stephenson predicted. Like the metaverse of Snow Crash, Second Life allows users to create personal avatars, and spend real money to buy virtual outfits, objects, and environments where they mostly meet up and chat with few, if any, of the hallmarks of traditional, goal-oriented gaming.

This element of social interaction within digital, or digitally enhanced environments has come to be a hallmark of what’s being called the metaverse in 2022. Venture capitalist and metaverse evangelist Matthew Ball describes the metaverse as

“an expansive network of persistent, real-time rendered 3D worlds..that can be experienced synchronously by an effectively unlimited number of users...””
— -Matthew Ball

Ahead of our 26th Annual Webby Awards, we’re looking back at many of the landmark Webby winning entries that foretold a move into the metaverse, combining advanced executions with top tier creative insight to push the medium forward. From early experiences that merged gaming and community building social elements like Neo-Pets, Club Penguin, and Counter Strike, to modern executions like Roblox and Minecraft, let’s examine some of the web’s finest metaverse-style experiences to get a sense of where this exciting new paradigm might take us.

One of our favorite examples, The Uncensored Library (Webby Winner, Games, Public Service, Activism, and Social Impact 2021) came from a partnership between Reporters Without Borders and MediaMonks, who devised an ingenious way to both raise awareness about media censorship, and also get a library’s worth of actual restricted material into the virtual hands of users around the world. Living within the social construction game Minecraft, MediaMonks built an elegant neo-classical library replete with marble and fountains, where gamers could freely explore and read uncensored stories from classic texts, to important and relevant news information on COVID-19.

On the topic of the pandemic, when quarantine forced LGBTQI+ organizers InterPride to cancel all in-person Pride events, they turned to Nintendo game, Animal Crossing, to create Global Pride Crossing (Honoree, Virtual & Remote, Public Service & Activism 2021), a virtual Pride that celebrated the community with a slew of branded assets from fashion to festivities that earned massive reach and gigabytes of positive sentiment.

Then there was Sanctum (Winner, Virtual & Remote, Best VR Video 2021), “ a series of exclusive virtual reality events, which transported Lovecraft Country fans into a world inspired by the show…[with] three live events throughout the season [and] guest voiceover performances by Jurnee Smollett, Jonathan Majors, Courtney B. Vance, and Michael Kenneth Williams.” Mirroring HBO’s world-bending fantasy show, Sanctum used VRChat, an open world space accessed through VR goggles, to build fantastical environments and performances with a scale and accessibility never before possible. Users who weren’t able to participate within the social VR space could watch the livestream on YouTube and also interact in real-time, solving riddles to trigger “spells” that directly impacted the experience.

We’ve already seen some ingenious forays into the meta space where brands and creators are building dazzling displays to connect and play in ways once thought to be only theoretical. With the massive success of these early examples, and the staggering investments being made by the world’s biggest players, the future of the metaverse is all but guaranteed to be out of this world.

If you are making this kind of work, honor it in The Webby Awards! The Extended Entry Deadline and last chance to enter is Friday, February 11, 2022.