Belle, the “Metaverse,” and Online Community 1

Belle is an incredibly good and beautiful movie. I spent about half of it in tears for reasons I will shortly explain. You should watch it. Even if, like me, you’re not really into animated movies.

Most of what I’ve seen about Belle so far in critical discussion has been in one of two veins:

  1. Wow, Mamoru Hosoda made a movie about the Metaverse! So prescient!
  2. This movie says a lot of important things about online bullying.

Point number 2 is arguably true; there is a lot in the movie about “unmasking” (basically doxxing) being used as the ultimate threat by a bunch of bullies who envision themselves as superheroes. There’s also a great little vignette in there about bullying and rumormongering over text. But it really strikes me that the focus is so on that.

Point number 1 continues to get on my nerves, particularly considering the number of interviews I’ve now seen where someone breathlessly asks Mamoru Hosoda about the Metaverse and he politely tries to answer. Right now, I think anything that presents an image of a wide online community is going to immediately get pegged as “about the Metaverse” and it’s goddamn infuriating for the same basic reason that the so-called Metaverse itself is also goddamn infuriating.

It’s quite possibly an artifact of my age group and the online circles I inhabit, but the venom and mockery directed at Zuckerberg’s pet project is relentless. I am basically at the edge of the generation that has never known a world without some form of internet and online connectivity. Computers weren’t ubiquitous in my early childhood, but well before middle school I was posting on bulletin boards, and it only progressed from there. I have known an online community almost my entire life. And every goddamn breathless thing that gets written about the Metaverse rubs me raw because we already do that every day. The only piece of the grand design that’s missing from what we already have is that community being controlled by a single corporation that wants to introduce artificial scarcity and extract money from us. Damn, sorry to be missing out on that.

Where Belle comes into this is that when I watched it, I didn’t see a movie about the future of social media. I saw a movie about the online communities that exist, right now. The wrapper changes, the look is different, but the space and its function remains the same. For so many of us–and I daresay particularly those of us in the queer community–the online space is somewhere we can find ourselves and be ourselves, free of the preconceptions of those who know us (or think they do) in real life. Belle‘s representation of an avatar that is more conceptually real than your physicality has been a truth for many of us already. For artists, the online space can be a place to reach out and sometimes, if we’re very lucky, find someone who gets what we’re doing, that first all-important person who sees past all your flailing and connects with what you’re fumbling to create.

And for many of us, the people we find online are those we form closer connections to than we can with anyone physically around us. This is not to ignore the reality of bullying and toxicity in online spaces, but I also think we so often have to grapple with those that we forget the basic goodness of what many of us have found here, the people we’ve come to know across distances we’d never be able to otherwise bridge. The communities I’ve found online have made me who I am and brought me some of my truest friends.

This is why I spent so much of the movie crying. I have been that person, who deeply loves someone whose face I’ve never seen and whose name I don’t actually know. I have been that person, desperately trying to find a way to help someone who is in trouble when I don’t even know where they live. Sometimes I’ve even been able to do so.

There have been many movies and tv shows that dive with enormous, sometimes melodramatic glee into the dark and dangerous side of the internet, the way online communities can go bad, the predatory people that stalk them. But Belle is the first I’ve ever seen that, while acknowledging that darkness, truly captures the community and love and grace that also exist.

One comment on “Belle, the “Metaverse,” and Online Community

  1. Reply JohnDel Feb 13,2022 08:11

    I think the thing about the metaverse is that right now it is in the state that computers were in the 1980s or the internet was in the 1990s – you could use them, but it wasn’t easy, quick, or convenient. When Microsoft changed using a computer from “enter a series of commands and cross your fingers” to “flip the switch and click on the icon”, they shifted them from something that only a few could use to something that everyone could (and does) use.

    I’ve been involved with metaverse-type projects since about 2000. And to this day, none of them are easy, quick, or convenient. When a company cracks that code, then the floodgates will open and that particular future will finally have arrived.

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