Searching for Friends in Horizon Worlds

Paul Murray, New York:

In September, my family and I move from our home in Dublin to a fancy East Coast college town, where I’ll be teaching for the semester. I grew up in Dublin, which means I have a wide circle of friends to draw on whenever I’m let out of the house. The street where I live is friendly: If I want to borrow a spatula or I need someone to look after my cat, I have only to ask.


On my initial visits, the metaverse seems sort of desolate, like an abandoned mall, and ordinarily I wouldn’t be lining up to join the misfits still populating it. Now that I’m away from my social network, though, I realize how much heavy lifting was being done by the brief, bantering, checking-in conversations I used to have with my friends and neighbors. So I’m determined to find the metaverse’s true believers, those left behind when the rest of fickle reality has moved on. They may not be able to lend me a spatula, but I’ve decided that, for now at least, these will be my people.

There are tiny bleak details in Murray’s exploration of Horizon Worlds — Murray describes the way it “flattens” social interactions, for example, in a way not too dissimilar from the context collapse of social media — but do not let that distract you from the overall sadder perspective. I have not been sold on Meta’s idea of the virtual reality world, and this piece did not make me a convert. It got reactions out of me, though — mostly laughter, occasionally gasps.

I do not want to be entirely dismissive here; Meta may be onto something, albeit early and poorly. But I think it is telling how hard it is to justify this experience compared to how quickly A.I.-generated text and images found a place in the world. After all the swings and misses of the past few years — Web3, NFTs, Meta’s take on augmented reality — people immediately found uses for things like ChatGPT. It has a technical name that reveals almost nothing, and is hosted on a subdomain of the website of OpenAI, a company that current users of its products probably had not heard of a year ago. The financial burden of getting into Meta’s virtual world or becoming mired in cryptocurrency nonsense certainly plays a role in reduced adoption. What we have learned from other devices is that people will pay a price if they can see how it will fit into their lives. So far, this virtual reality stuff is not going well.