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For Palestinians, social media influence comes with the threat of prison

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An activist uses a cellphone to live stream as Israeli police forces block Palestinians at an entrance to the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem's Old City, July 26, 2015. (Faiz Abu Rmeleh/Activestills)

On the evening of April 2, 2023, Ramzi Abbassi, a prominent Palestinian journalist and social media influencer, drove back to his home in the occupied East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan. He had been at a nearby hospital visiting his mother, who was severely ill and would pass away just a few weeks later. It was Ramadan, and, before getting into his car, he video-chatted with his wife Shaima and his two young children, Kanan and Sanawat, promising to pick up bread on the way home to break the fast. As Abbassi neared his street, however, he encountered Israeli police at a temporary roadblock, who told him to stop driving and forced him out of the car. 

According to Shaima, Abbassi was hit on the head, handcuffed, blindfolded, and pushed into a police cruiser. He would spend the next 90 days in the Russian Compound — an Israeli prison in West Jerusalem — facing a stack of allegations that he posed a threat to Israeli national security. In addition to his three months of detention and interrogation, Ramzi was sentenced to a year and one day in prison. And while the eventual charges were ostensibly unrelated to his online activity, Abbassi’s lawyer has no doubts that this is the principal reason for his client’s incarceration.  

Charges against Palestinian social media users have surged in recent years — particularly in the wake of the Palestinian uprising of May 2021 known as the “Unity Intifada” — and Abbassi is just one of many whom Israeli authorities have surveilled, censored, detained, and incarcerated for their online activity. Usually, they are accused of inciting violence or sympathizing with a terrorist organization; however, when it comes to Palestinians, “incitement,” “sympathy,” and “terrorism” are often broadly defined. Legal advocates say that the crackdown on Palestinian online speech constitutes an alarming form of political persecution, resulting in a systemic restriction of Palestinian freedom of expression.

‘Random people would be filming him on the street’

Abbassi was already a celebrity when I first interviewed him in September 2021. It was a few months after historic protests had erupted across Palestine in response to state-backed settler expropriation in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, and Abbassi was one of a number of local influencers who played a pivotal role in broadcasting images of Israeli settler violence and police brutality to the globe. His followers — already in the hundreds of thousands — had skyrocketed to almost half a million that summer. Appearing frequently on Hebrew and Palestinian television, quoted in the New York Times, and reposted by international celebrities, Abbassi had become an influencer through and through. 

From the outset, Abbassi’s virality seemed to rub the Israeli authorities the wrong way. Police had confiscated his cameras during protests at Damascus Gate and Sheikh Jarrah. Border Police checking the IDs of Palestinian worshippers entering the Al-Aqsa compound warned Abbassi they were watching him. During our conversation in 2021, he explained that Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, had banned him from posting live footage after he streamed viral videos of police violence against protesters. Platform administrators had also threatened to delete his account if he continued to post similar content, he said.

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Ramzi Abbassi. (Instagram)

“I’m very worried about the future,” Abbassi confessed. “I have so many stories on my page. The government can use any of that content against me and say I am inciting violence.” But the intimidation didn’t deter him from believing social media platforms could amplify Palestinian narratives worldwide. “There is something beautiful about social media,” Abbassi said, smiling. “You can share information as fast as lightning. One video can reach 1 million [viewers]. After this spring, we have CNN calling us up; we have a whole network.”

When I spoke to Shaima last month, she said that surveillance and harassment by Israeli authorities only intensified in the months and years following the summer of 2021. Abbassi had worked as a physical therapist at a school for children with disabilities in East Jerusalem for years; it was where he and Shaima, who also works as an educator with disabled children, first met. Yet Abbassi was fired from his job in early 2022. In a video posted on Facebook, Ramzi said he received a letter from Israel’s Civil Administration — the bureaucratic arm of the occupation — declaring he was “a harm to the general public and a harm to the educational process.” 

Without a steady income, Abbassi turned to journalism full-time. “The pages and news companies he had been working with saw his skills, his presentation, and they encouraged him to pursue it,” Shaima said. He took courses to refine his documentary skills and worked with major news outlets in the Middle East. In the months before his arrest, he was filming “Jerusalem Taxi,” a documentary series modeled off the American reality show, “New York Taxi,” that featured interviews with prominent Palestinian Jerusalemites. All this time, Abbassi was living under heightened surveillance. “The police came to our house, and random people would be filming him on the street,” Shaima said.

‘They are trying to send a message through Ramzi’

Since 2016, incitement to violence or sympathy with a terrorist organization have become increasingly common charges against Palestinian social media users. Israel passed an updated counterterrorism law that year, which broadened the legal definition of incitement to encompass not only anyone who “publishes a direct call to commit a terrorist act” but also those who “publish praise, sympathy, encouragement or support of a terrorist act, or identification with it.” 

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According to legal experts, the definitions of both “incitement” and “terrorism” within the law are intentionally vague. “The articles of incitement and sympathy with terrorist organizations are very broad,” said Adi Mansour, a lawyer for the Palestinian legal center Adalah. “The definition of terrorism does not exist in the law. The definition of incitement does not exist specifically.” 

Palestinians hold phone cameras during a protest at Damascus Gate, Old City of Jerusalem, December 7, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Palestinians hold phone cameras during a protest at Damascus Gate, Old City of Jerusalem, December 7, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

In 2021 alone, Israel’s state attorney’s office filed 16 indictments of “incitement” or “affiliation with a terror organization,” 15 of which were against Palestinian suspects. And these are only the cases civil rights organizations like Adalah can track: many Palestinian social media users are targeted for their online speech, but ultimately sentenced to lengthy jail times on other charges. Abbassi, for example, was finally sentenced to a year behind bars under Israel’s penal code; the prosecution accused him of conspiracy with a foreign agent. But Abbassi’s lawyer, Khaled Zabarqa, told +972 that his client was targeted because of his influential online profile. 

“The charges mention his popularity — that he has half a million followers on social media. The indictment even mentions posts with nationalistic slogans,” said Zabarqa, who has worked on many similar cases over the years. “They are trying to send a message through Ramzi, a preventive message,” he added.

The crackdown on Palestinian political speech comes amid an upsurge in Jewish-Israeli right-wing violence on- and offline. In May 2021, Jewish supremacists carried out brutal attacks on Palestinian citizens of Israel, coordinating meeting points on Telegram and Facebook. Since Israel’s most right-wing government in history assumed power late last year, Jewish extremists have taken to social media to plan lethal pogroms in the West Bank towns of Huwara and Turmus Ayya and coordinate smaller riots through a handful of villages. According to a report released by Adalah in June 2023, the discrepancy in prosecuting Jewish Israelis for incitement to violence or terrorism “reaffirms Israel’s long-standing apartheid policies in law enforcement.” 

Lawyers say the discriminatory application of the law amounts to nothing less than political persecution. Zabarqa, who has represented scores of Palestinian activists from Jerusalem and has been interrogated by Israeli authorities because of his own Facebook posts, told +972 that “there has been a huge increase in intimidation of influencers throughout ’48 [the territories within the Green Line], Jerusalem, and the West Bank since 2021.” Then, international commentators proclaimed Israel was losing its war on social media despite pumping millions into not-so-covert influence campaigns targeting Israeli citizens and international social media users. 

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During the Unity Intifada, Palestinian users garnered unprecedented online support for their struggles against settler expropriation and Israeli state violence. “Now it’s clear there is pressure on what the Palestinian influencer voice should be,” Zabarqa said. “[The authorities] want pro-Israel narratives online. They don’t want a pro-Palestinian narrative.” 

Israeli security forces arrest protesters during a demonstration against Israel's plan to evict Palestinians in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, Jerusalem, May 6, 2021. (Jamal Awad/Flash90)

Israeli security forces arrest a protester during a demonstration against the planned evictions of Palestinians from the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, Jerusalem, May 6, 2021. (Jamal Awad/Flash90)

Making Palestinians feel watched

Reports of the abuse of Israeli surveillance capabilities in Palestine have skyrocketed in recent years. From potent spyware to mass biometric databases, aerial surveillance, and drone warfare, human rights advocates say Israel’s advanced surveillance apparatus is used to police and control Palestinians throughout the region. 

In June, the head of Israel’s Shin Bet (also known by its Hebrew acronym “Shabak”) announced AI was used to comb through Palestinian social media content and determine which users should be questioned and detained, sparking concerns that AI was taking over key decision making processes. According to a 2023 report by Amnesty International, “the constant surveillance Palestinians face means they not only live in a state of insecurity, but they are also at risk of arbitrary arrest, interrogation, and detention.” The point, in the words of Palestinian digital rights advocate Mona Shtaya, “is to make them feel watched no matter where they are.”

Adalah’s Mansour, who has worked on prominent incitement cases in recent years, said the policing of Palestinian social media users unfolds according to a certain logic. “The Shabak will invite the person for what they call a warning conversation,” with the intention to create a “chilling effect, to get to a place where the person does not post anymore or share stories.” 

Mansour said that the authorities want Palestinians to feel like they are being monitored. “Sometimes, it ends there, and in other cases where people are not deterred, eventually it ends up with criminal charges,” he added. Because these conversations take place without any legal oversight, Mansour said, it is impossible to know how many Palestinians have been subjected to these warning conversations and subsequently deleted their social media pages or engaged in self-censorship to avoid incarceration. 

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Israeli authorities have pressed charges against a handful of prominent Palestinian journalists, politicians, and community leaders for their online activity. The list includes Mohammad Kana’neh, a leader of the secular Arab nationalist Abnaa el-Balad movement who has been under house arrest since 2021, and Sheikh Kamal Khatib, a Palestinian community leader arrested in 2021 and subjected to a travel ban after his release. Regular Palestinian social media users have also been detained and charged with prison or house arrest terms stretching for more than a year within the Green Line and across Jerusalem. This includes a dentist from Lyd imprisoned for over a year for allegedly endorsing Hezbollah in Facebook comments, and a journalist from Sheikh Jarrah who served almost a year under house arrest for her Facebook posts, among others

Palestinian journalist Lama Ghosheh is led into a hearing at the Jerusalem Magistrate's Court, accused of identification with a terrorist organization and incitement to violence because of Facebook posts, September 12, 2022. (Oren Ziv)

Palestinian journalist Lama Ghosheh is led into a hearing at the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court, accused of identification with a terrorist organization and incitement to violence because of Facebook posts, September 12, 2022. (Oren Ziv)

Although Israeli law criminalizes Palestinian speech, social media companies are equally complicit in surveilling and censoring Palestinian content. Israel’s cyber unit, a small yet potent body within the Justice Ministry, is responsible for requesting that social media platforms remove supposedly incendiary content. Journalists and advocates have long said the cyber unit mainly targets Palestinian users

Since its founding in 2015, the unit has successfully petitioned Meta to delete tens of thousands of posts, pages, and accounts created by Palestinian users. Tamer Almisshal, an Arabic news presenter for Al Jazeera, was the most recent victim of such censorship; Almisshal’s page was taken offline the day Al Jazeera aired his investigation into Meta’s censorship of Palestinian content. 

‘We have the ability to reach the people’

Abbassi will finally return home next summer, more than a year after being stopped by Israeli authorities that night last April. In the meantime, Shaima is allowed to visit him once a month, bringing their two young children along so that they can hug their father during the last 10 minutes of visitation. She does not want them to forget what he looks like. Abbassi insists on remaining in high spirits, Shaima said, and is preparing to return to journalism full time when he is released.

When we spoke in 2021, Abbassi knew dragnet surveillance and criminalization of Palestinian political speech by Israeli authorities made his arrest likely. But he also emphasized that none of the established avenues of political dissent — from the empty promises of peace made by the Palestinian Authority to the international community’s futile warnings — had stopped the settlers from moving into his neighbors’ homes or prevented Israeli authorities from throwing his friends into jail. “I didn’t ask to be an activist,” he said. “But now we have the ability to educate the people and to reach the people. It’s our responsibility.”

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Despite the surge of political persecution and criminalization, Israeli and international commentators alike say Palestinian social media users are more influential than ever. Yet, as Shaima noted when she spoke to +972, “Ramzi is only a journalist because he isn’t able to work as a physical therapist anymore. It’s due to [the Israeli authorities’] actions that they force Palestinian people into roles they didn’t necessarily want in the first place.”



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Christian family goes in hiding after being cleared of blasphemy

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Christian family goes in hiding after being cleared of blasphemy

LAHORE, Pakistan — A court in Pakistan granted bail to a Christian falsely charged with blasphemy, but he and his family have separated and gone into hiding amid threats to their lives, sources said.

Haroon Shahzad (right) with attorney Aneeqa Maria. | The Voice Society/Morning Star News

Haroon Shahzad, 45, was released from Sargodha District Jail on Nov. 15, said his attorney, Aneeqa Maria. Shahzad was charged with blasphemy on June 30 after posting Bible verses on Facebook that infuriated Muslims, causing dozens of Christian families in Chak 49 Shumaali, near Sargodha in Punjab Province, to flee their homes.

Lahore High Court Judge Ali Baqir Najfi granted bail on Nov. 6, but the decision and his release on Nov. 15 were not made public until now due to security fears for his life, Maria said.

Shahzad told Morning Star News by telephone from an undisclosed location that the false accusation has changed his family’s lives forever.

“My family has been on the run from the time I was implicated in this false charge and arrested by the police under mob pressure,” Shahzad told Morning Star News. “My eldest daughter had just started her second year in college, but it’s been more than four months now that she hasn’t been able to return to her institution. My other children are also unable to resume their education as my family is compelled to change their location after 15-20 days as a security precaution.”

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Though he was not tortured during incarceration, he said, the pain of being away from his family and thinking about their well-being and safety gave him countless sleepless nights.

“All of this is due to the fact that the complainant, Imran Ladhar, has widely shared my photo on social media and declared me liable for death for alleged blasphemy,” he said in a choked voice. “As soon as Ladhar heard about my bail, he and his accomplices started gathering people in the village and incited them against me and my family. He’s trying his best to ensure that we are never able to go back to the village.”

Shahzad has met with his family only once since his release on bail, and they are unable to return to their village in the foreseeable future, he said.

“We are not together,” he told Morning Star News. “They are living at a relative’s house while I’m taking refuge elsewhere. I don’t know when this agonizing situation will come to an end.”

The Christian said the complainant, said to be a member of Islamist extremist party Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan and also allegedly connected with banned terrorist group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, filed the charge because of a grudge. Shahzad said he and his family had obtained valuable government land and allotted it for construction of a church building, and Ladhar and others had filed multiple cases against the allotment and lost all of them after a four-year legal battle.

“Another probable reason for Ladhar’s jealousy could be that we were financially better off than most Christian families of the village,” he said. “I was running a successful paint business in Sargodha city, but that too has shut down due to this case.”

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Regarding the social media post, Shahzad said he had no intention of hurting Muslim sentiments by sharing the biblical verse on his Facebook page.

“I posted the verse a week before Eid Al Adha [Feast of the Sacrifice] but I had no idea that it would be used to target me and my family,” he said. “In fact, when I came to know that Ladhar was provoking the villagers against me, I deleted the post and decided to meet the village elders to explain my position.”

The village elders were already influenced by Ladhar and refused to listen to him, Shahzad said.

“I was left with no option but to flee the village when I heard that Ladhar was amassing a mob to attack me,” he said.

Shahzad pleaded with government authorities for justice, saying he should not be punished for sharing a verse from the Bible that in no way constituted blasphemy.

Similar to other cases

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Shahzad’s attorney, Maria, told Morning Star News that events in Shahzad’s case were similar to other blasphemy cases filed against Christians.

“Defective investigation, mala fide on the part of the police and complainant, violent protests against the accused persons and threats to them and their families, forcing their displacement from their ancestral areas, have become hallmarks of all blasphemy allegations in Pakistan,” said Maria, head of The Voice Society, a Christian paralegal organization.

She said that the case filed against Shahzad was gross violation of Section 196 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC), which states that police cannot register a case under the Section 295-A blasphemy statute against a private citizen without the approval of the provincial government or federal agencies.

Maria added that Shahzad and his family have continued to suffer even though there was no evidence of blasphemy.

“The social stigma attached with a blasphemy accusation will likely have a long-lasting impact on their lives, whereas his accuser, Imran Ladhar, would not have to face any consequence of his false accusation,” she said.

The judge who granted bail noted that Shahzad was charged with blasphemy under Section 295-A, which is a non-cognizable offense, and Section 298, which is bailable. The judge also noted that police had not submitted the forensic report of Shahzad’s cell phone and said evidence was required to prove that the social media was blasphemous, according to Maria.

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Bail was set at 100,000 Pakistani rupees (US $350) and two personal sureties, and the judge ordered police to further investigate, she said.

Shahzad, a paint contractor, on June 29 posted on his Facebook page 1 Cor. 10:18-21 regarding food sacrificed to idols, as Muslims were beginning the four-day festival of Eid al-Adha, which involves slaughtering an animal and sharing the meat.

A Muslim villager took a screenshot of the post, sent it to local social media groups and accused Shahzad of likening Muslims to pagans and disrespecting the Abrahamic tradition of animal sacrifice.

Though Shahzad made no comment in the post, inflammatory or otherwise, the situation became tense after Friday prayers when announcements were made from mosque loudspeakers telling people to gather for a protest, family sources previously told Morning Star News.

Fearing violence as mobs grew in the village, most Christian families fled their homes, leaving everything behind.

In a bid to restore order, the police registered a case against Shahzad under Sections 295-A and 298. Section 295-A relates to “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs” and is punishable with imprisonment of up to 10 years and fine, or both. Section 298 prescribes up to one year in prison and a fine, or both, for hurting religious sentiments.

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Pakistan ranked seventh on Open Doors’ 2023 World Watch List of the most difficult places to be a Christian, up from eighth the previous year.

Morning Star News is the only independent news service focusing exclusively on the persecution of Christians. The nonprofit’s mission is to provide complete, reliable, even-handed news in order to empower those in the free world to help persecuted Christians, and to encourage persecuted Christians by informing them that they are not alone in their suffering.

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CHARLOTTE HORNETS MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES You can follow us for future coverage by liking us on Facebook & following us on X: Facebook – All Hornets X – …

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What went wrong with ‘the Metaverse’? An insider’s postmortem

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What went wrong with 'the Metaverse'? An insider's postmortem


It’s now two years since Facebook changed its name to Meta, ushering in a brief but blazing enthusiasm over “the Metaverse”, a concept from science fiction that suddenly seemed to be the next inevitable leap in technology. For most people in tech, however, the term has since lost its luster, seemingly supplanted by any product with “artificial intelligence” attached to its description. 

But the true story of the Metaverse’s rise and fall in public awareness is much more complicated and interesting than simply being the short life cycle of a buzzword — it also reflects a collective failure of both imagination and understanding.  

Consider:

The forgotten novel

Ironically, many tech reporters discounted or even ignored the profound influence of Snow Crash on actual working technologists. The founders of Roblox and Epic (creator of Fortnite) among many other developers were directly inspired by the novel. Despite that, Neal Stephenson’s classic cyberpunk tale has often been depicted as if it were an obscure dystopian tome which merely coined the term. As opposed to what it actually did: describe the concept with a biblical specificity that thousands of developers have referenced in their virtual world projects — many of which have already become extremely popular.

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Snow Crash.

You can see this lack of clarity in many of the mass tech headlines attempting to describe the Metaverse in the wake of Facebook’s name change: 

In a widely shared “obituary” to the Metaverse, Business Insider’s Ed Zitron even compounded the confusion still further by inexplicably misattributing the concept to TRON, the original Disney movie from the 80s.

Had the media referenced Snow Crash far more accurately when the buzz began, they’d come away with a much better understanding of why so many technologists are excited by the Metaverse concept — and realize its early incarnation is already gaining strong user traction.  

Because in the book, the Metaverse is a vast, immersive virtual world that’s simultaneously accessible by millions of people through highly customizable avatars and powerful experience creation tools that are integrated with the offline world through its virtual economy and external technology. In other words, it’s more or less like Roblox and Fortnite — platforms with many tens of millions of active users. 

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But then again, the tech media can’t be fully blamed for following Mark Zuckerberg’s lead.

Rather than create a vision for its Metaverse iterating on already successful platforms — Roblox’s 2020 IPO filing even describes itself as the metaverse — Meta’s executive leadership cobbled together a mishmash of disparate products. Most of which, such as remotely working in VR headsets, remain far from proven. According to an internal Blind survey, a majority of Zuckerberg’s own employees say he has not adequately explained what he means by the Metaverse even to them.

Grievous of all, Zuckerberg and his CTO Andrew Bosworth promoted a conception of the Metaverse in which the Quest headset was central. To do so, they had to overlook compelling evidence — raised by senior Microsoft researcher danah boyd at the time of the company acquiring Oculus in 2014 — that females have a high propensity to get nauseous using VR.

Meta Quest 3 comes out on October 10 for $500.
Meta Quest 3.

Contacted in late 2022 while writing Making a Metaverse That Matters, danah told me no one at Oculus or Meta followed up with her about the research questions she raised. Over the years, I have asked several senior Meta staffers (past and present) about this and have yet to receive an adequate reply. Unsurprisingly, Meta’s Quest 2 VR headset has an estimated install base of only about 20 million units, significantly smaller than the customer count of leading video game consoles. A product that tends to make half the population puke is not exactly destined for the mass market — let alone a reliable base for building the Metaverse. 

Ironically, Neal Stephenson himself has frequently insisted that virtual reality is absolutely not a prerequisite for the Metaverse, since flat screens display immersive virtual worlds just fine. But here again, the tech media instead ratified Meta’s flawed VR-centric vision by constantly illustrating articles about the Metaverse with photos of people happily donning headsets to access it — inadvertently setting up a straw man destined to soon go ablaze.

Duct-taped to yet another buzzword

Further sealing the Metaverse hype wave’s fate, it crested around the same time that Web3 and crypto were still enjoying their own euphoria period. This inevitably spawned the “cryptoverse” with platforms like Decentraland and The Sandbox. When the crypto crash came, it was easy to assume the Metaverse was also part of that fall.

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But the cryptoverse platforms failed in the same way that other crypto schemes have gone awry: By offering a virtual world as a speculative opportunity, it primarily attracted crypto speculators, not virtual world enthusiasts. By October of 2022, Decentraland was only tracking 7,000 daily active users, game industry analyst Lars Doucet informed me

“Everybody who is still playing is basically just playing poker,” as Lars put it. “This seems to be a kind of recurring trend in dead-end crypto projects. Kind of an eerie rhyme with left-behind American cities where drugs come in and anyone who is left is strung out at a slot machine parlor or liquor store.”

All this occurred as the rise of generative AI birthed another, shinier buzzword — one that people not well-versed in immersive virtual worlds could better understand.

But as “the Metaverse” receded as a hype totem, a hilarious thing happened: Actual metaverse platforms continued growing. Roblox now counts over 300 million monthly active users, making its population nearly the size of the entire United States; Fortnite had its best usage day in 6 years. Meta continues plodding along but seems to finally be learning from its mistakes — for instance, launching a mobile version of its metaverse platform Horizon Worlds.  

Roblox leads the rise of user-generated content.
Roblox.

Into this mix, a new wave of metaverse platforms is preparing to launch, refreshingly led by seasoned, successful game developers: Raph Koster with Playable Worlds, Jenova Chen with his early, successful forays into metaverse experiences, and Everywhere, a metaverse platform lead developed by a veteran of the Grand Theft Auto franchise.

At some point, everyone in tech who co-signed the “death” of the Metaverse may notice this sustained growth. By then however, the term may no longer require much usage, just as the term “information superhighway” fell away as broadband Internet went mainstream.  

Wagner James Au is author of Making a Metaverse That Matters: From Snow Crash & Second Life to A Virtual World Worth Fighting For 

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