Just when you thought you were getting the hang of TikTok, crypto, and NFTs, Mark Zuckerburg has to come along and get everyone talking about the metaverse. In an October 28 keynote presentation at Facebook’s annual virtual reality conference, Zuckerburg announced the renaming of Facebook as “Meta,” a new, overarching parent company to its subsidiary properties, including WhatsApp, Instagram, and now, the Facebook social media platform. More than just a rebrand, Facebook’s transition to Meta indicates the company’s new focus on the “metaverse,” or “the next chapter” of social media, as Zuckerburg describes it. Essentially, moving forward, the company’s priority is to help build an “embodied internet” negating the distinction between digital and physical presence – a goal they will spend $10 billion on working towards in 2021 alone.
In the metaverse, virtual socialization, culture, gaming, work, and commerce will blend into the analog world more seamlessly than anything we’ve seen before. Over the course of his 80-minute video presentation, Zuckerburg portrayed the metaverse as a vivid, immersive space in which people can teleport as holograms, koi swim through the treetops, and you can text your friends 3D street art that pops out and floats around them. While it looks cool, the video is partially speculative – much of the technology the metaverse will need to function has yet to be invented, so available visuals are more like artist’s imaginings than hard-and-fast depictions of its appearance and feel. The main takeaway is that the metaverse will overlay our “real,” immediate environment with visuals and information – whether we choose to participate and plug into it using glasses, headsets, or other interfaces, or not.
Meta’s debut has evoked its fair share of pessimism. Critics have pointed out the timing of its flashy reveal could be a cynical PR deflection; after all, whistleblower Frances Haugen is currently calling Zuckerberg to step down from the company. Additionally, some people feel the sinister origins of the term “metaverse” — coined by sci-fi writer Neal Stephenson in his 1992 novel “Snow Crash,” are a bit on the nose. In the book, the metaverse is an entertaining virtual distraction for people otherwise trapped in a dystopian, corporate hellscape. Others, like the New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow, just think it all sounds dumb. “I have no interest in becoming part of a ‘metaverse,’” writes Blow. “That sounds absolutely ridiculous. And terrible.”
Criticism and scrutiny of both Meta and the metaverse are warranted. Meta chief officer Chris Cox has said no one company will own the Metaverse, as many tech giants will contribute to building it, including Microsoft, social media company Snap, and user-generated gaming platform Roblox. Nonetheless, Facebook’s metaverse-centric rebrand suggests it intends to be the key presence in the metaverse – a presence with a poor track record of misleading and exploiting users, fomenting violence, interfering with democracy, and just plain making people feel bad. In short, the metaverse will be a collective project, but one Meta wants to be built on its terms.
Even if we look beyond Meta, the internet is full of toxicity that will likely extend into its “embodied” manifestation. And anyway, aren’t we always talking about the value of unplugging and being truly present in our physical communities, and the dangers of getting too sucked into screens? Isn’t this whole thing going to be a bit … unhealthy? It’s too early to answer that question definitively, but yes, probably.
Still, there is no point behaving like ostriches and hoping the metaverse blows over – the fact is, it’s already here. Aspects of the metaverse are already built, functioning, and financially successful – and have been for some time. For instance, 18-year-old worldbuilding game Second Life is an example of an immersive, user-generated universe with a virtual economy that allows users to both spend money in-game and cash out their digital earnings, a deceptively complex functionality central to the metaverse. This summer, virtual world platform VRChat received $80 million USD of funding towards the development of their own virtual economy capabilities.
Meta’s VR contingent is also growing at a rapid clip, with sales of hardware products like its Meta Quest (née Oculus Quest) headset rising 195% year over year to $734 million. Last month, Meta announced a $10 million “creator fund” to encourage people to build experiences on its Horizon Worlds VR platform, though the project is still in beta. Early this month, it acquired Within, the VR studio behind hugely popular fitness game Supernatural, in which players workout amid stunning virtual landscapes (Meta also owns the studios behind buzzy VR games like Beat Saber, Lone Echo, Asgard’s Wrath, and more). Between its rebrand, its highly successful VR hardware and software assets, and its intent to invest further in VR and the metaverse (including the creation of 10,000 new metaverse-oriented jobs in the EU within the next five years) Meta seems committed to doing everything it can to elevate the metaverse until participating in it becomes second nature, the way checking our phones is today.
Technology is always advancing, and if the world’s richest and most powerful tech companies want to make an AR/VR all-encompassing “embodied” internet a thing, then that’s what is going to happen (unless we suddenly get a lot better at denying ourselves the instant gratification of new experiences for the sake of our collective future). But the public can still influence the tech agenda by demanding better accountability from new initiatives than we’ve seen in the past. Now is the time to ask: how will Meta make its metaverse projects safe for all users? How will it surveil us, and collect our data, how will its algorithms work and why? How, in short, will Meta avoid remaking all of Facebook’s mistakes?