It’s hard to overstate how wholesale is the transformation Facebook aims to undergo as it morphs into Meta. The fundamental conception of the service when it was invented back in the early days was to get you more engaged with the people and world around you. I always found that an admirable goal. Facebook was designed to make real connections, under your real name, with other people.
Now Meta, the neo-reconstituted version of a Facebook in crisis, essentially invites us to leave the real world and escape into a construct of its own invention. Virtual worlds that use immersive VR like the company’s Oculus headset militate, in general, towards escaping reality rather than engaging more deeply with it. I’m sure Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg believes the avatar/people you interact with in such comic-spaces enable rich human interactions, but I have my doubts about the prognosis there for emotional and practical truth. And yes, that “metaverse” world is barely invented yet, with the company’s users almost all still living in the old world of Facebook and Instagram and WhatsApp. But the firmly-declared intentions of Zuckerberg represent an almost diametric reversal from his original vision.
The company suffered another shocking reversal this week—in the stock market. While it didn’t stem directly from this pivot, uncertainty surrounding the strategy change looms powerfully in the background. The stock dropped 25% (more than $200 billion in lost market cap) mostly because Meta projected lower revenue growth rates, total daily users declined slightly (for the first time ever), and competition is increasing. But profits were also diminished by a hefty $10 billion of losses from heavy investment in Meta’s Reality Labs division, where the Oculus headset was spawned and where it nurtures its incipient “Horizon Worlds” metaverse.
Facebook has done an amazingly good job in recent months redefining a narrative about the future of consumer tech and social networking. The apparent inevitability of a metaverse future has become a thorough industry and press meme. But that’s mainly just because this gorilla of the industry changed its name. I’m sure it represents a true longterm strategy shift in Zuckerberg’s mind, but the timing of the change was a brilliant and successful tactical move. It served, as intended, to distract and change the topic from the innumerable societal harms documented in the Facebook Papers released by dissident ex-employee Frances Haugen.
But for all the hullabaloo, and however fascinating it might seem, it remains massively premature to declare that the future of social media is the metaverse. I have no doubt that some proportion of younger, digitally-native, gaming-oriented affluent users will increasingly interact in virtual spaces via avatars, if that is what a metaverse experience is. There is some fun opportunity here, granted. (Techonomy’s own Robin Raskin this week highlights some of the fun that is already possible, with her whimsical tour through today’s nascent metaverses.)
But there are numerous reasons to be cautious and skeptical about the prospect that the majority of people who interact and communicate digitally will do so in a metaverse-type reality, at least in any near-term future. For one thing, there is little evidence thus far that people other than gamers want to wear a VR headset, and while it’s likely augmented reality headsets will emerge that enable us to experience hybrid realities, they barely exist yet.
Here are some other reasons for caution in proclaiming a metaversian inevitability:
The Cartoon Curse
The metaverse we’ve been presented thus far takes its heritage from comics and manga. It is a cartoony, silly, even aesthetically laughable kind of space. Amusing, yes, but highly limited. (How do you feel about gallivanting around without legs, for example?) That aesthetic will not appeal to the broad mass of humanity. New and diverse aesthetics and environments have to emerge before we can even begin to know if the metaverse would ever have mass appeal. We will need a new approach to platforms, in which a company, probably not Meta, enables developers to create their own environments and benefit from whatever economics emerge there. If people will live considerable amounts of their lives in a virtual reality, they will need diverse and aesthetically sophisticated places to move in and out of. I suspect it will be more fun and more satisfying if those spaces are constructed at least in part from the real world, which is why augmented reality tools, like the glasses Apple is ostensibly planning to launch this year, seem like a more modest and promising direction. I am far more optimistic about Apple’s ability to create a beautiful and compelling virtual experience than about Facebook’s.
Where’s the Money?
Advertising and monetization in the metaverse is a blank slate. Even Meta acknowledges it does not yet know exactly how it will make money in the metaverse. It’s hard to bet on something as the industry’s fundamental direction when it is unclear even how it will become profitable.
Is the Metaverse a Rich Person’s Game?
Social media is a global phenomenon, and vast numbers of people worldwide still go online with very inexpensive smartphones. Many will not be able to afford additional equipment. So in those places, which represent roughly half of the Facebook service’s total base of users, no metaverse will replace today’s social media anytime soon. Interestingly, the person I consider the world’s leading expert on metaverses, Philip Rosedale, who invented Second Life more than a decade ago, is returning to that platform with a resolute belief that special equipment and glasses should not be necessary. If he’s right, this objection may turn out to be moot.
The Metaverse May be Perverse
The more that digital spaces resemble the real world, the more likely people will want their experiences there to include sexual and other highly personal interactions. Most visionaries of today’s metaverse seem unprepared or even unaware of that. Second Life surrendered years ago to the inevitability that much of the interaction within its virtual world would involve sexual role play. This is, to say the least, not the kind of thing Meta is likely to be adroit at managing and overseeing.
Facebook/Meta has proven massively ineffective at governing its existing text and photo-based spaces, but, as many have noted, the challenges of governance will likely be considerably greater in immersive virtual reality. It is very hard to be sanguine when imagining how FB will oversee its virtual worlds. Based on all we know now about this often-irresponsible company, misinformation and hate are likely to proliferate there as they have on Facebook blue.
In the end, engagement is more important and a higher value and aspiration for technology than escape. So I worry that the metaverse meme has become so pervasive in the wake of Facebook’s name change. It should not too much dominate our imagination about what is possible for digital social interactions in the future.