Late in October, when Mark Zuckerberg unveiled the rebranding of Facebook as Meta, he did so in an immersive video designed to reveal his vision of the future in which virtual he, Mark Z., gave a virtual tour of all of the exciting things we will able to do in the new virtual world otherwise known as the metaverse.
There was experiential art. There was a meeting where attendees floated around a table as if in a spaceship. Yet there was our host himself, as a cartoon representation, in black jeans, white sneaks and a long-sleeve navy T-shirt, looking very familiar, only a little more fit.
“Really, Zuck, you could have worn ANYTHING, and you chose this?” tweeted one observer. It was a fair point.
If the upside of the coming future is, as Mr. Zuckerberg said in his presentation, to “be able to do almost anything you can imagine,” and “express ourselves in new, joyful, completely immersive ways,” shouldn’t you wear some totally awesome, not-in-your-real-closet clothes? He did have a skeleton onesie and an astronaut suit visible in his virtual closet. Andrew Bosworth, Meta’s chief technology officer, had attended the virtual meeting in the guise of a giant friendly robot.
That is the promise of a virtual world: that you get to be anybody you want, unhampered by flesh, gravity, environment, expectations and economics — or maybe just the record you have created. That you get to play with the transformative power of fashion raised to the nth degree.
You can be braver, more gorgeous, more aggressive, more green; change gender, age, race, profession (even species); look richer, thinner, more athletic; access the inaccessible, be it a designer gown, the coolest hoodie or a dress that blooms and grows around you like a vine.
“You can be anyone you want to be, free from proscriptive constructs and sensory needs,” said Lucie Greene, the founder of Light Years, a futures and brand strategy firm.
So what was Mr. Zuckerberg doing playing it safe in his usual just-the-basics clothes?
He was reflecting the truth that how we express identity in virtual worlds is actually a fraught and complicated question disguised as an amusing game of diversion. And that, if his big bet is correct and the metaverse and the physical world become increasingly interconnected, it is a question that is only going to get more complicated.
It is, in fact, going to become as essential and telling a matter as how we dress in the morning.
“In the real world we use clothing in all kinds of complicated ways: to experiment and try on different selves,” said David Chalmers, a professor of philosophy at New York University and the author of “Reality+,” a book that argues for embracing digital worlds. “You’ve got your psychological identity — how you feel inside — and your social identity: how you express that. In the VR world, that’s just more complex.”
After all, there are so many fewer limitations than in the physical world, and so many more variables to consider. But it would be a mistake not to consider them. As more people dip their toes further and further into the virtual world and need correspondingly more options for self-expression, and more brands and designers step up to provide them, the more liberating and potentially messy the choices become, the more what you put on your avatar is going to matter.