The metaverse is coming, according to Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook who is now trying to reinvent the company under a new name: Meta Platforms.
In a presentation Thursday at the Facebook Connect conference, Zuck announced the corporate name change. He pitched the metaverse (which, for now, is mostly hypothetical) as a game-changer: “In this future, you will be able to teleport instantly as a hologram to be at the office without a commute, at a concert with friends, or in your parents’ living room to catch up. This will open up more opportunity no matter where you live. You’ll be able to spend more time on what matters to you, cut down time in traffic, and reduce your carbon footprint.” Are you sold on living in “The Matrix” yet?
The not-really-hot take is that Zuckerberg wants to change the subject. According to this theory, Meta represents Facebook’s response to getting flash-flooded by negative stories in recent weeks about how the company has failed to take action to curb harmful content, allegedly because execs didn’t want to be perceived as biased against right-wingers and/or because cracking down hard on misinformation, hate content, etc. would hurt profits. (In this view, the Facebook-to-Meta rebranding is akin to Philip Morris’ reincarnation as Altria.)
Zuckerberg denied this presumed motive in an interview with The Verge. The spate of negative news stories based on leaked documents, he said, “had nothing to bear on this. Even though I think some people might want to make that connection, I think that’s sort of a ridiculous thing. If anything, I think that this is not the environment that you would want to introduce a new brand in.”
In any case, what’s more interesting to me than corporate-reputation optics is this: Is there truly a mass market for the metaverse?
Yes, many people have grown more accustomed to living virtually during the pandemic, and for better or worse everyone knows how to log in to Zoom now. But I wonder how many of us want to get more deeply entrenched in a digital existence.
The evidence so far isn’t very compelling for the advent of a massive metaverse that supersedes today’s social media platforms. Facebook’s own Oculus Quest 2 virtual-reality headsets (which will be relabeled “Meta Quest” next year) sold about 4.6 million units in the first six months of availability, per an estimate by Counterpoint Technology Market Research. The firm says the lighter, cheaper and faster Quest 2 is the best-selling VR/AR device ever. Finally — traction in this space, right? Maybe. But at that rate, it will take more than 100 years for Meta to hit its goal of bringing the metaverse to 1 billion people. To be fair, Meta folks are developing new ways to skin this virtual cat that could accelerate adoption (more below).
Other companies have thrown in the towel on extended-reality (i.e. metaverse) products. Magic Leap, an AR startup that burned through hundreds of millions of dollars trying to build a consumer-oriented headset, last year nixed its ambitious plans for the consumer market, laying off hundreds of employees and pivoting to enterprise applications. There are apparently still true believers in its revamped plans: Magic Leap this month announced another $500 million tranche of funding.
Then there was Google Glass, the internet giant’s early experiment with smart glasses. Once touted as the future of mobile computing, Google Glass never took off: The devices were pricey; they spooked people with their ability to take videos and photos surreptitiously; and, when it comes right down to it, they weren’t especially useful. (The product’s most enduring legacy may be the term “glasshole.”) Meanwhile, Snap introduced new AR-enabled Spectacles earlier this year, but the initial rollout was aimed at content creators and it’s unclear whether these will become a thing for everyday Snapchatters (as the company had hoped its initial Spectacles would be).
Zuckerberg, in his Facebook Connect keynote, suggested that a reason VR/AR hasn’t gone mainstream is that human-computer interfaces still need to get better. He might be right: Having a computer strapped to your face isn’t everyone’s idea of a good time. Meta Platforms, he said, is working on solutions to this problem. Among those Zuckerberg called out were Project Nazare “full AR” smart glasses, which presumably will avoid the missteps of Google Glass. He also touted the company’s work in neural interfaces for AR and VR, built on electromyography (EMG) inputs to translate a wearable user’s electrical motor nerve signals into commands for navigating the metaverse. (About which one might think: Yikes?)
The real action in the metaverse today (and the near future) is in gaming: Epic Games’ “Fortnite” and Roblox have large and vibrant user bases for their virtual worlds. But these are more narrowly focused than the supersize, general-purpose platforms Zuckerberg is talking about.
All that said, Meta’s positioning seems like a solution in search of a problem. It’s built around achieving the company’s business objectives, not responding to consumer demand:
- Attracting younger users with flashy new tech: Zuckerberg said on the Q3 call the company is “retooling our teams to make serving young adults their North Star, rather than optimizing for the larger number of older people.”
- Diversifying revenue beyond ad revenue into ecommerce, so Meta/Facebook isn’t reliant on foes like Apple and Google.
- Meta will not be “Facebook-first,” according to Zuckerberg, meaning that users will no longer need a Facebook account to access the company’s other products — a business practice that has run afoul of antitrust regulators.
“Our hope is that within the next decade, the metaverse will reach a billion people, host hundreds of billions of dollars of digital commerce, and support jobs for millions of creators and developers,” Zuckerberg said. (You can watch the full Facebook Connect keynote here.)
Part of the renaming and strategy shift is surely ego-driven: Zuckerberg wants to be seen as a techno-visionary, not the guy who inflicted a global digital blight by inventing the most widely used addiction-by-design app in the world.
In an essay for The Atlantic, Brian Merchant opined that “Mark Zuckerberg wants to be the hero of the metaverse because he knows Facebook is boring.” After all, who wants to manage 40,000 safety and security staffers responsible for deleting the most vile material humanity can spew out when you could be the mastermind of a whole new way for people to work, play and learn together?
But that leads to another question about the new direction Zuckerberg has set for his megacorp: If you believe Web 2.0 social media platforms are a menace to society, how much worse will an all-day, full-body, immersive metaverse be?
Zuckerberg tried to reassure Facebook Connect viewers that the Meta metaverse vision would make privacy and safety top priorities. “These have to be fundamental building blocks,” he said in an exchange with Nick Clegg, Facebook/Meta’s VP of global affairs, who lobbed helpfully leading questions to his boss. Zuck also sought to allay concerns that Meta would try to monopolize the metaverse (if/when it reaches scale) by claiming the company will build open standards and interoperability into its platforms “from Day One.”
As we’ve seen with good ol’ fashioned Facebook and other social media — not to mention the internet itself — new technologies frequently introduce unintended consequences.
If you’re inclined to pessimism, the dystopian possibilities of the metaverse are endless. Here’s a small and perhaps trivial example: The Facebook Connect metaverse preso featured a clip of a guy playing virtual chess with a ghostlike older man. For me, it instantly conjured an unsettling future in which this technology could let us commune with holograms of the dearly departed. How easy would it be for someone to create a Bizarro-World deepfake of you as an avatar in the metaverse? (Or maybe I’m being overly technophobic: In their early days, TV, radio and even the printing press were decried as having the potential to destroy the moral fabric of society.)
Senior execs at Meta (née Facebook) have suggested that, sure, social media has some deleterious effects — but those are more than offset by its benefits.
Instagram head Adam Mosseri, on the Recode Media podcast last month, was asked to respond to the Wall Street Journal’s report, based on documents leaked by whistleblower Frances Haugen, that Facebook definitively knew that Instagram was harmful to the self-image and mental health of teenage girls. This was Mosseri’s answer: “I think anything that is going to be used at scale is going to have positive or negative outcomes. Cars have positive or negative outcomes… We know that more people die than would otherwise because of car accidents. But by and large, cars create way more value in the world than they destroy. And I think social media is similar.”
Well. I guess the takeaway is, don’t say you haven’t been warned.
I’ve never been an avid early adopter of new tech. While some of the metaverse stuff Zuck showed off looks cool, fun and even useful, I’ll wait to be sure the seatbelts, airbags, traffic lights and speed limits are well in place before taking up residence in the metaverse.