What’s Worth Knowing About the ‘Metaverse’

PARIS, FRANCE - APRIL 06: In this photo illustration, the logo of the Messenger and Facebook applications are displayed on the screen of an Apple iPhone on April 06, 2018 in Paris. In the midst of turmoil following ... PARIS, FRANCE - APRIL 06: In this photo illustration, the logo of the Messenger and Facebook applications are displayed on the screen of an Apple iPhone on April 06, 2018 in Paris. In the midst of turmoil following the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook faces a host of questions regarding its privacy and confidentiality practices. Messenger, the messaging application launched by Facebook, is in the center of attention. Indeed, Facebook allows itself to analyze the links and images that users send to Messenger and even to read the messages exchanged if they are posted, in order to make sure that the contents comply with the conditions of use. This increased monitoring of Facebook within its messaging application was confirmed by Mark Zuckerberg a few days ago.(Photo Illustration by Chesnot/Getty Images) MORE LESS
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October 29, 2021 1:15 p.m.

We do political news not tech news. So I don’t want to do too many posts about Facebook and its travails. But as we’ve seen in the first decades of this century the tech behemoths, by their scale, economic heft and integration into our lives are very much part of our politics. So I wanted to share a few thoughts on Facebook’s pivot to the “metaverse” and rebranding as “meta”.

What on earth is the “metaverse”? Basically it’s just virtual reality, VR. Take a bunch of the things you now do in your daily life – talk to friends, play a game, watch a movie, have a work meeting – and you’ll do them in a VR headset in a digital ecosystem controlled by Facebook. Sounds great, right? Honestly, it’s hard for me to imagine anything more dystopian since the defining feature of Facebook is its indifference to “externalities”, the downside impacts of what it is and what it does.

The draw for Facebook is obvious. Facebook now makes billions by taking the amount of time you spend on Facebook and Instagram and its other platforms and monitoring your activities to sell to other people in the form of advertising. Say you spend 20 minutes a day now on Facebook platforms. Well, they want to expand that to maybe 6 hours a day as they pull in part of your work time, your entertainment time, news consumption. Again, sounds great, right?

My own sense is that this move is more rooted in desperation than mastery. The best discussion of it is the one published yesterday by Brian Merchant in The Atlantic. Facebook has access to such obscene amounts of capital that if it puts its mind to it it’s very perilous to underestimate what it can accomplish. A couple days ago, in the midst of the deepest brand and regulatory crisis in its history, the company announced yet again that it had beaten Wall Street profits expectations. Adam Smith famously said there’s a lot of ruin in a nation. And there’s a lot of ruin in Facebook … sorry, Meta, which by various measures is more powerful and richer than all but a few nation-states. But the ‘metaverse’ doesn’t actually exist yet. It’s more of a concept than a thing and one that’s been kicking around for some time waiting for technology that could sustain it and people who’d want to participate. And Facebook – aside from having obscene amounts of money – seems uniquely ill-positioned to create it.

Merchant sums it up in prose I cannot match.

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Rarely has such a successful company so vigorously tried to sell a vision for a product—or more specifically, a framework for future products—that is so abstract and wanting, so flimsy. When Google said it wanted to organize the world’s information, it could at least point to a functioning search engine. Despite the lengthy presentation, it is still not really clear to anyone what Facebook’s version of the metaverse would actually look like in practice, other than a linked collection of virtual-reality programs like Workrooms and existing Oculus apps in a nebulous 3-D space.

And neither is it clear who would want to spend their time there. There is not a single person in existence who has scanned Facebook’s News Feed and said: Yes, immerse me in this reality. I want to feel my uncle’s meme about Hot Pockets on my face. But “the metaverse” could generate enough momentum, enough knock-on interest, that it could bring this clumsy fantasy framework clattering to life. Which is exactly why this half-real, Big Tech–led effort to erect the metaverse is worth both laughing down and taking seriously.

Let me say here that the real issue here isn’t so much Facebook but whether this future – and I think some version of it will exist – will be based on open platforms or walled gardens like Facebook. Parts of the metaverse already do exist. Your work meetings on Zoom are an example of it, albeit pretty low tech. But does it need to be higher tech? If you’ve got children living at home you probably know a version of it. When I was a kid video games were almost entirely solitary. Maybe you could compete with someone next to you on the couch. But mostly it was you and a computer. Today kids (and lots of adults) play games that are entirely social in nature. A twelve year old hops into Fortnight with a half a dozen friends sitting at their computers in their own homes and fights it out in a virtual world with a headset that they use to talk to each other via a Discord channel. These are both virtual spaces for social interaction. They could be more immersive with virtual reality or what’s called ‘augmented reality’ – where you see the real world with computer generated artifacts superimposed over it. But that’s not necessarily the most important part of it. It’s not a binary metaverse vs not-metaverse. A lot of it is already coming into existence around us.

But who will control it? Or will anyone? Facebook wants all or most of the “metaverse” to be something running on its servers, under its control and paying its rents. But that’s not the only way these things can grow. Here’s a different vision scoped out by the gaming company Epic Games which, like almost everyone but Facebook, what’s something not dominated by a single corporate behemoth. Indeed, it’s not at all the best way. Examples are right in front of us. The Internet itself is the ultimate open standards space, the Open Web. No one owns the web. It’s decentralized and operates according to open standards, both for how the network interoperates and how documents which flow over it are encoded. At the dawn of the Internet age there was a competition to see whether the web would be the Open Web that we know or a handful of proprietary services like AOL or CompuServe. The Open Web won out.

This has been cut into in many ways. Google now has a very dominant control over the browser market that we use to surf the web in the shape of the Chrome browser. A handful of corporations own the “pipes” the Internet runs on. Advertising and mapping data are dominated by different arms of Google. Amazon dominates the cloud server market on which TPM and countless other sites you visit are housed. But through all this the Open Web still exists. To a great degree the social media era we are now living in has been a period in which a handful of companies – Facebook being the big example – have tried to reconstruct these walled gardens within the Open Web. The real question is whether companies like Facebook will be able to parlay that dominance into the future.

The Apple App store and really the whole Apple ecosystem is another classic walled garden. But it’s not predatory in the same way Facebook is. Apple controls everything and demands you send them a lot of money – mostly in the form of hardware but also services. But they’re pretty protective of your privacy and user experience. As you know I’m a pretty big critic of Facebook. But I think one of the reasons Facebook is more predatory than say Google (which is no shrinking violet) is not simply the personalities of the key players but structure. Most of Google’s revenue drivers are dependent on the Open Web existing, even though dominated by Google. Google has done massive damage to TPM – just as it has almost every other publication in the world – through its domination of a the ad market. But it also cuts a nice sized check to TPM every month since Google needs site partnerships to run the ads that run through its networks. This element of interdependence, though very much on Google’s terms, has created a corporate culture that is more sensitive to externalities and the health of the parts of the web it operates in. On the contrary, Facebook is a world unto itself. It doesn’t really need the rest of the web. And the corporate culture shows it.

My own sense remains that Facebook remains ill-positioned to accomplish anything like this. The brand is just toxic and more importantly it doesn’t seem like anything that grows naturally from anything they already do. Zuckerberg is tired of the hassles of Facebook and wants to do the new thing, which means increasing the amount of your engagement with his servers by an order of magnitude. Still, with infinite money many things are possible.

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