The literal only news story from today is about Meta, a company that used to be called Facebook. The most important part of this story is that I correctly predicted the name, proving that I am an incredible, beautiful genius. The second most important is that a trillion-dollar company, a company where one man holds 60% of voting power, has totally changed its mission from “we make social media stuff” to, and I quote, “finally put people at the center of our technology…[and]…can unlock a massively bigger creator economy.”
The abrupt, bizarre name-change that includes eradicating the Oculus VR product name apparently has “nothing to do with the leaks” that show TheFacebook/Meta/MakeMyNudesFight.com intentionally engineered their product to cause genuine harm to human begins for profit, which is usually reserved for health insurance companies and arms manufacturers. The reality is that it likely does, but I can also believe that he was considering this beforehand, if only because he’s tried to wheel out the awkward metaverse narrative before with his trademark “look at me, one of your regular human males, talking to you” cadence.
While Facebook may now be concerned with the metaversal, the reality is that we need to stop humoring Mark Zuckerberg with sycophantic access journalism and begin evaluating how this may be the beginning of the end for a trillion-dollar company. Members of the media have willingly accepted the narrative that this is Zuckerberg’s attempt to move Facebook away from being known as a social media company from a company that has proven, at best, that it can influence many people at once but not necessarily accommodate them.
Facebook has and will continue to be the place where billions of people connect, and I believe its social side will continue to do something, though its user growth is slowing. What should trouble you is that Meta/Oculus has only sold a few million headsets total. This would be fine - hell, it would be positive - if Zuckerberg hadn’t just shifted his entire company to focus on the metaverse, with the primary way of interacting with said metaverse being a headset that even in its best iteration still has to work out how to stop giving people motion sickness.
As an early user of Facebook - August 2005 or so, when I went to Penn State - it was remarkable because it was easy. You had these easy-to-connect profiles, and you could find people. It was not a difficult thing that required you to explain it, nor was it something that grew from people having to learn a bunch of stuff - it grew (when it opened up to everybody). Even at its worst - in its most bloated and convoluted form (every subsequent year since 2006) - Facebook remains a product that just *works*, even if the definition of “works” changed from “catching up with my college friends” to “finding similarly-racist people.”
What the metaverse does not regularly do is “just work.” It is clunky, ugly, weird, uncomfortable, and expensive. As I reflected on previously, Facebook Horizons is terrible - even when it works flawlessly, which is not often. We are not a year or two from VR and the metaverse finding their feet - we are several iterations deep of VR headsets that are still highly demanding on the user to set up, still making people sick, and still onerously expensive.
More importantly, the metaverse is not “better” than any other experience, and I’d argue is decades from being so. This would not be a problem if they had not changed their company to Meta and talked about the metaverse being the future. The metaverse may very well be the future, but it is neither the present nor going to be here any time soon. This is likely why they have been so incredibly vague about the definition of what the metaverse is, or what it will be, or what they can do. To quote Zuckerberg from an uncharacteristically sycophantic Verge piece:
He’s careful not to get into details, but he believes there will be a “pretty important role” for crypto technology like NFTs and smart contracts in the metaverse. “One of the big questions that people are going to have about virtual goods in the metaverse is, ‘Do I really get to own this thing?’” he told me. “‘Or is it just content that someone can basically just take away from me in the future?’ And I’m pretty sensitive to that given all the pressures that we’ve had to try to navigate around censorship, and what’s the definition of something that’s harmful versus when you have to get in the way of people being able to express something.”
Zuckerberg has absolutely no clue what he is building and you are a fool if you think otherwise. This is not a plucky startup founder or a journeyman finding his feet, but a guy who has the majority of voting power in a publicly-traded trillion-dollar enterprise who is giving a “forgot to prepare for this meeting” style speech.
The metaverse - and you could fairly describe the internet as the metaverse - is allegedly inspired by Ready Player One and Snow Crash, two books about bleak dystopias where people choose to live in the computer rather than the real world as it’s so sad. In both cases, they are not object lessons in how to run a company and also use technology that has barely left the realm of imagination. And even if we’re humoring Zuckerberg’s flailing narrative that this is where he can take the company, there is no way that even with all of their resources that Facebook can fight the lack of broadband penetration in America alone that would need to facilitate the data that would create such a virtual world.
Sure, we have awkward augmented reality experiences using Snap’s unreleased, unpriced new Spectacles. But Snap is also not betting its entire existence on AR, hasn’t changed its name to AugmentedReality, and doesn’t have a CEO saying that they’re now an AR company. When they started to claim they’re a camera company, it was silly, but at least founded in a product that existed (the camera) related to their product (which uses the camera a lot). Since that point, any iteration of their product has at least made sense, and based on their announcement, I think it’d be more reasonable to call Snap a metaverse-first company than Meta.
My somewhat crazy take is that this is the end of the Zuckerberg era at Facebook. His company is now in the middle of two crises - the Facebook Papers and a crisis of purpose that may not have immediate problems but will continue to compound until they come up with something resembling a product. Google Starline, which allows you to speak to someone as if they’re right there (but behind a mirror), is the only product I can think that even sort of hits the metaverse narrative, and it’s very much work-in-progress.
The question is whether people will correctly call Zuckerberg’s bluff. If a client of mine that sold social networking and video conferencing products told me to put out an announcement that they’d “become a metaverse company,” I would ask them to explain, in detail, what metaverse products they actually sell or will sell, and beg them with all the energy I had to change course until they had something meaningful to pair the announcement with.
Instead, Zuckerberg has put out one of the most bizarre and wrongheaded announcements of all time. When Netflix renamed the DVD part of its service to Qwikster, it was silly, both in the name and the needless company split, it at least had a product and a (bad) reason for doing it - that the services were different and thus had to be separated. Meta is a terrible brand with a terrible name and no purpose beyond vaguely suggesting we can go live on the computer. It is a word that could be mispronounced, one that does not tell you anything about the company (not that Facebook’s name was particularly illustrative, but it was still better) or help you understand anything about what you’re logging onto.
We are in a perfect storm of desperation from the Zuckerberg camp - an attempt to switch attention from the societal damage the company has done while also signaling that the future is now when the future is very much still in the future. The technology required to get even a few steps into the totally fictional metaverse world Mark has rendered in his agonizing 11-minute long video is so far off that it is honestly irresponsible for a public company to act as if it’s possible. And even when it is, how much will it cost? How easily will it be available? What about poorer countries that have enjoyed using services like WhatsApp and Facebook for free - are they left out of the metaverse?
None of these questions are answered, and it appears the few opportunities to ask Zuckerberg directly were squandered. The company that grew through democratizing access to other people for free (while monetizing and antagonizing them with ads, but still) is now bereft of purpose, desperate for another business model as they fear slowing growth and regulation.
The only success that can be had from the rebrand is as a direct test of the media by Mark Zuckerberg. If he sees that people will eat up this meaningless drivel, he will believe that Meta can continue operating in the same exploitative fashion it has before. This doesn’t mean he’s right - I think most people will say “what the fuck does that mean?” and continue using their social networking piece - but this will be viewed as a success if most media entities publish Zuckerberg’s vague purpose without criticism.
And they will, and Zuckerberg will keep hammering the “vague statement about the metaverse” button and going on TV shows to talk about it. But people will keep calling the company Facebook, and people will keep being confused about the metaverse, and Zuckerberg will have to come up with something better, cheaper and more accessible than Oculus before someone works out a way to oust him from the company he’s flying on a direct collision course with wherever John McCain is in Hell.