Quick Thoughts on the Metaverse

For some time now, the term metaverse has been the hottest buzz word in tech, giving even stalwarts like blockchain and NFTs a run for their money.

All the heavy hitters have gotten in on the game: Fortnite and Roblox of course, but more recently Mark Zuckerberg announced to redirect Facebook (note: link goes to Facebook) towards the metaverse as well. (For some background, The Verge and New York Times are good starting points.)

Before we dive in, here are some of the metaverse thoughts Zuckerberg shared in a blog post (highlights mine):

Now, the areas I’ve discussed today — creators, commerce, and the next computing platform — they’re each important priorities for us, and they’re each going to unlock a lot of value on their own. But together, these efforts are also part of a much larger goal: to help build the metaverse.

It’s noteworthy that as part of his talk of a “next computing platform” he includes both virtual reality and also smart glasses, so it’s safe to assume that he aims for a bi-directional mixed reality play.

He continues:

So what is the metaverse? It’s a virtual environment where you can be present with people in digital spaces. You can kind think about this as an embodied internet that you’re inside of rather than just looking at. We believe that this is going to be the successor to the mobile internet.

This is where the claims start being pretty bold and maybe more hope than substance, but we’ll come back to that later.

First, back to The Verge’s recap (highlights mine):

The company’s divisions focused on products for communities, creators, commerce, and virtual reality would increasingly work to realize this vision, he said in a remote address to employees. “What I think is most interesting is how these themes will come together into a bigger idea,” Zuckerberg said. “Our overarching goal across all of these initiatives is to help bring the metaverse to life.”

Strategically, this combination of divisions makes sense: Creators of content (and possibly physical products, or at least their virtual representations) and all the ways you need to market and sell them: e-commerce, “community” (read: social media), and the visually immersive environment (“virtual reality”) to glue it all together into a metaverse in the specific sci-fi novel sense of the word.

It makes strategic sense — but only for an exceedingly narrow vision that is primarily advertisment-focused.

So, it makes strategic sense — but only for an exceedingly narrow vision. This vision appears to be built around two columns: advertisement/sales, and remote work, and neither is interesting. Make no mistake: Nothing here indicates a truly creative environment.

  • Advertisement/sales: The picture drawn here suggests a highly transactional nature, not unlike what drives Facebook’s main product line: Marketing, advertising, targeting, all under a hair-thin veneer of social interaction (the FB feed where you share updates with friends and family). It appears prescriptive, narrow, uncreative at best, and somewhat soul-sucking at worst.
  • Remote work: Here, what Facebook has shared so far through their Oculus brand is very traditional VR: digital representations of the analog world; direct translations from physical to virtual. Virtual meeting rooms with virtual desks and virtual screens, virtual keyboards and virtual white boards and virtual high fives. It tries to centralize what is already largely solved through other tools, and doesn’t tackle any of the real issue with remote work (at least under a pandemic), which have nothing to do with technology and everything to do with quality of live and the economic and social context of the folks working remotely. The best I can say about this vision is that it is boring.

This vision appears to be built around two columns: advertisement/sales, and remote work, and neither is interesting.

So where does that leave us?

Facebook, a company with a rather lackluster track record of dealing with real issues — even and especially if it is a strong driver of those issues, like in the case of disinformation and surveillance marketing — focuses its strategy on a big new play. This play, a virtual meeting plus e-commerce platform, is being built along an uninspired vision, and based on assumptions that I would argue are faulty:

  • That a centralized, fully integrated VR platform is preferable to a more decentralized and open ecosystem.
  • That virtual analogs of the physical world is the preferred way of approaching immersive virtual reality, as opposed to new metaphors that lend themselves better to virtual immersions.
  • That Facebook should be trusted with being the host of this immersive world. (Which I wouldn’t: I deleted my Facebook account long ago.)

To me, this feels stale right out the gate. It’s not outrageous, if you don’t count Facebook as outrageous, it’s boring.

To me it would also appear that this is too unattractive, too clunky, too involved to work in the market. But who knows, Facebook has a way to push things into the market through their sheer size, and maybe it could become a „success“ by the numbers.

The main takeaway for me, however, is this: Technology is never neutral (Kranzberg), and resources are limited.

If you look at Facebook’s metaverse initiative through a lens of priorities in a zero sum attention/resources trade off, we need to ask: Where is Facebook directing attention & resources ? Answer: the metaverse’s meeting rooms and customized avatars.

We also know where it does not apply those same efforts: Fighting any of the much more salient important issues like climate change, strengthening democracy, or supporting a healthy information ecosystem.

Technology is never neutral. Neither is a company strategy.

Image: Joseph Racknitz, 1789