Taylor Swift has released a new album called Midnights. Over the past several weeks, Swift has presided over a meticulous online rollout: Ahead of the album’s drop, she launched “Midnights Mayhem With Me,” a TikTok video series wherein she released the 13 track names one by one via bingo. This week, she went as far as to release a full launch schedule for fans via Instagram that detailed exactly what would happen at which times and where online—including a “special very chaotic surprise” at 3 a.m. ET last night.
To call what Swift is doing with this album release “online savvy” or “audience engagement” or “marketing” is to undersell it. She has, in a way, created a virtual universe for fans to experience the launch in. As The Washington Post’s Emily Yahr recounts, Swift has left puzzles and secret messages for fans for more than 15 years, embedding them in her album liner notes, music videos, social-media posts, and even (if the theories are right) in the clothing she wears. The result is a near-year-round ecosystem that’s pretty much constantly bubbling away online. Fans gather in the tens of millions to obsessively dissect every move she makes. Last night, they seem to have crashed Spotify.
A mass of people are gathering to participate in a large virtual world with direct ties to the real one. Talk about it enough, and it kind of starts to sound like another much-discussed concept: a metaverse. This may seem like a leap, but a metaverse—a futuristic virtual-reality world—is essentially a shared online experience, which is not all that different from the online fanscape Swifties inhabit.
“People building metaverse platforms, most of them think it’s a technology question,” Wagner James Au told me. “But it’s really a community and culture question.” Au knows firsthand: In the early 2000s, he embedded as a reporter in Second Life, an early virtual-world platform. He is currently writing a book called Why the Metaverse Matters.
We talked about Swift’s devoted cross-platform virtual community—and whether, despite technical gaps, she’s actually outpacing Mark Zuckerberg in the quest to build a true metaverse.
Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Caroline Mimbs Nyce: I think Taylor Swift is a good case study for talking through what we mean by metaverse: What are the actual prongs that define it? Does it have to have VR?
Wagner James Au: The term came from a novel called Snow Crash. It’s very detailed about how it will work. The author, Neal Stephenson, is also a programmer.
The definition is this: The metaverse is a vast, immersive virtual world that’s simultaneously accessible by millions of people through VR and other devices. And it has to be customized: highly customizable avatars, powerful experience-creation tools. It’s integrated with the real-world economy and external technology. So in other words, you can create content and experiences in the metaverse platform, and you can actually make money from them somehow. It’s called mixed reality. It’s integrated with the real world.
Nyce: How important is VR in this? Is that “and”—as in “VR and other devices”—really operative there?
Au: No, no, no. That’s another thing that drives me crazy: the assumption that it has to be in VR. In the book, Stephenson even mentions that it’s mostly just the wealthy who use VR headsets, and regular folks just use a regular computer.
Metaverse platforms exist. The biggest one is Roblox, followed by Fortnite. To be a true metaverse with a capital M, you would need, like, 15 million people or more in the same virtual world at the same time. And we’re not there yet. We’re close.
Nyce: Are you a Swiftie?
Au: I am not a Swiftie. But I try to follow her as much as possible.
Nyce: So a couple of days ago, she posted on Instagram a video of a virtual desk. It looks like it could be something out of The Sims or something.
Au: I’m going to go look while you’re talking.
Nyce: She outlines the entire schedule for this week—where she wants people to be, what platform she wants people to be on. She’s created this entire participatory schedule for her fans.
Au: I’m on it right now. She did it in some kind of a 3-D engine. I’m not sure which one.
Nyce: How metaverse-y does that feel to you? To have a set schedule that’s actually connected to things that are going on in the real world, but people are watching them all virtually.
Au: Well, the fact that she’s created this kind of virtual office for herself, that’s—let’s call it metaverse-ish, especially if she ends up using it somehow in the future. [Say] her fans come in, or she actually has her Taylor Swift avatar come in and hang out in the office.
My guess is that this was shot with Unreal, which is one of the main engines for metaverse technology. Are you familiar with Fortnite?
Au: Fortnite uses the Unreal graphics engine. It looks so real that you could actually make movies in it. She could be creating some kind of metaverse experience in Fortnite.
The terminology would be that, for example, she would have an island in Fortnite that you could visit. They do bring real-life stars into big metaverse platforms such as Roblox and Fortnite. They did that during the peak of the pandemic with Travis Scott. It was all prerecorded, but it was an amazing experience. And the thing that got people excited in the music industry is more people saw him in Fortnite than would see him in a real-life concert. Some 12 million people saw it.
Nyce: Second Life had concerts too, right? Why do we have these concerts in these early metaverse spaces?
Au: Right now, everything is dominated by social media such as TikTok and Instagram, especially for Gen Z. And it’s not real time, in the sense of people hanging out in the same space. Whereas a metaverse platform like Fortnite, it’s people hanging out together and playing together. If you look at the video of Travis Scott, it’s him performing, but it’s all his fans running around. They’re all flying around and dancing together because it’s in the 3-D space, so you feel that sense of being there and hanging out with other people who are also fans. So that’s the magic of a metaverse platform. You don’t just sit back and “like” things and share things on social media. You’re actually experiencing it in real time.
Nyce: So let’s say Swift doesn’t create a metaverse experience. How close is what she’s doing right now to an actual metaverse?
Au: What she has now is a huge virtual community across basically all the social-media platforms, probably mostly Instagram and TikTok. And their universe, so to speak, or their world is based around Taylor Swift. It’s not based on any one platform. They’ll go wherever she goes. So it’s not a virtual world, but it’s a virtual community. That’s really what makes the metaverse and metaverse platforms powerful. [It’s when] you have large virtual communities of people who like hanging out together and creating content together, creating experiences, playing together. I would think there would be a hunger for people who follow Taylor on TikTok or whatever to do it in more of an immersive 3D experience.
Nyce: By 3-D, do you mean like it’s got to be like The Sims or Second Life?
Au: Yeah, anything like you see on an Xbox or a PlayStation, such as Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto.
Nyce: Like, it has to be a world?
Au: Well, by definition, a metaverse is 3-D and immersive. What usually happens is it starts as a 3-D game, and then it takes on metaverse qualities. That’s what happened with Fortnite. We’ll probably see really huge games such as Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto become more metaverse-like.
Nyce: So is 3-D the main thing that’s missing definitionally from Taylor’s current universe?
Au: Yeah. It’s a shared 3-D virtual world that millions of people could be in at the same time.
Nyce: For some people out there right now, this whole week is Taylor Swift. They are very much flipping between TikTok, Instagram, Twitter, even real life. But because they don’t have avatars and they’re not meeting in a virtual space, it’s not technically a metaverse?
Au: Correct. But yes, she could do that tomorrow if she wanted to. She could have her own metaverse platform. She could invite people immediately to jump in and hang out with her and create content based on her songs. And she could perform live if she wanted to. And she wouldn’t have to depend on any of the platforms. Right now, she’s making content for Instagram, which is owned by Meta, and TikTok.
Nyce: It sounds like the Swifties might be living in something that is pretty close to a metaverse currently. It doesn’t seem like it’s missing a lot to get there. People overuse the term vibes. But it seems like fandoms are giving off metaverse vibes right now.
Au: It’s like BTS ARMY. It’s a virtual community that’s almost like its own country, because it goes across borders. It has everything except the 3-D graphics, but that’s something that they could add later if they wanted to.
Nyce: Could we say Swifties are living in the closest thing to a metaverse right now?
Au: [Laughs.] I wouldn’t put it that way. I’d say they live in a cross-platform virtual world that is all Taylor Swift and Taylor Swift–associated content. And it’s more of an ideational world. It’s not in 3-D.
Nyce: So it’s not a metaverse.
Au: Right. But it’s everything except the 3-D-technology part. Put it that way.
Nyce: Let’s compare this to Meta’s Horizon World, for example. Are Swifties actually living more of a true metaverse experience than the people using that platform? How much does the 3-D aspect of it matter versus the cultural aspects?
Au: Well, for the technical definition, you do need a 3-D-virtual-world aspect. But the virtual community has to be as strong as the technology piece. So you need a community that’s really thriving. And that’s what she has. She has a thriving virtual community that’s across multiple platforms. So she has everything a metaverse needs except the 3-D graphics.
I love that you asked me to do this, because I’m thinking, Wow, she’s actually bigger than the metaverse.
Nyce: This is maybe me just being silly, but I’m also actually kind of serious: Is Taylor Swift doing a better job at building a metaverse than Mark Zuckerberg right now?
Au: Well, in the sense that Mark Zuckerberg is almost totally failing, yeah. People building metaverse platforms, most of them think it’s a technology question. But it’s really a community and culture question. That has to be built. Horizon World only has about 200,000 to 300,000 users. So Taylor Swift could launch a Fortnite island on her own, and she would have 100 million users within a month.
She has what Zuckerberg does not have. She has a brand and an aesthetic and almost, like, a worldview that literally millions and millions of people—like, they have this world that is in their mind and that they share with people. And that’s something that Zuckerberg doesn’t have. People who play Roblox, they all share that. People who play Fortnite all share that. And people who are pervasive across social media, such as Taylor, have fans who also have that. They don’t necessarily have the 3-D-technology part, but she could do that if she wanted to, or she could not.
The world’s her oyster. The virtual world’s her oyster.