Last week brought with it a lot of chatter about Mark Zuckerberg’s vision of the metaverse. At Meta Connect 2022, Zuckerberg announced a new (pricey) VR headset that will, among other things, harvest data directly from our eyeballs and facial expressions. He also touted a new partnership with Microsoft that read like an anguished effort to shoehorn VR into the workplace, a business angle which Meta itself has apparently struggled to pull off, even among its own employees. There was also an acutely meme-able moment in which Zuckerberg hailed the arrival of legs in the metaverse; the legs themselves turned out to be fake.
In all of this, what seemed to be missing was a coherent, unifying vision for the future of the metaverse. Horizon Worlds, Meta’s “social universe" experience, is supposed to be the foundational and transformational virtual world builder dreamt of in Snow Crash and Ready Player One; in reality, it's buggy, basic, and unlikely to usher in a new era of AR/VR adoption any time soon. Even Meta’s employees are reluctant users of the company’s metaverse: Meta “VP of Metaverse” Vishal Shah penned a recent memo to staff, stating bluntly, “Everyone in this organization should make it their mission to fall in love with Horizon Worlds.” When was the last time you fell in love because someone told you it was mandatory?
While Meta attempts to distract with revised avatars and new hardware, developers and partners might want to ask the hard questions about the nature of the virtual reality we are all trying to build. We are in the midst of a deep identity crisis about the future of online social spaces, and much of the media attention given to Zuck’s take on the metaverse sidesteps fundamental issues of privacy, safety, and data stewardship in virtual environments. Furthermore, while Zuckerberg has gone on record with a stated intention of building an “open ecosystem" for the metaverse, Meta’s well-documented history of buying out competitors, keeping apps out of its storefront through a stifling curatorial process, and locking developers out of tools to build experiences that might compete with its own offerings should prove that Meta intends to build ever higher walls around its virtual garden.
What's going on here? Why does Mark Zuckerberg seem to be so distracted by facets of his metaverse that ultimately matter very little? Legs and lifelike avatars are lipstick on a proverbial pig, the sorts of “innovations" a company shows off when it's lost the thread of its own mission. What are the problems that Zuckerberg is failing to address? What could sink Meta’s metaverse?
- Developer Experience
A good steward of the metaverse should recognize that independent developers and creators are the lifeblood of a thriving virtual ecosystem. While the FTC investigates Meta for anticompetitive practices in it's VR division, Meta should dedicate existing resources to increasing transparency and building trust with the folks who will build experiences that drive VR adoption.
Meta has spent $15 billion on its Reality Labs division since the start of 2021, but my own experience with the Oculus development platform suggests that this astonishing figure should be a real head-scratcher for investors. As evidence, I'll simply submit that I've had a support ticket open with Meta for four months that is unresolved as of the time of this writing. My company has been unable to upload a new production build of our VR application due to an error of indiscernible origin being thrown by the Oculus Developer Hub, and repeated requests for help on an issue that is impacting all of our end users continue to be ignored. If developers cannot trust the platform on which they are developing, the platform will ultimately fail.
- People as Product
Zuckerberg made his billions creating an ad delivery platform disguised as a social networking application. Facebook is “free,” and thus its users are its product. If Meta plans to blast our retinas and eardrums with ads recycled from the real world, we can also count on them to harvest consumer data from the sensors on Meta devices at an unprecedented level. (Think about what an advertiser could do if it knew precisely what made you smile, laugh, frown, or crinkle your nose in disgust.) Consumers are losing their taste for Facebook, and marketing agencies are beginning to question the value of digital ad delivery in an era of advertising super-saturation and lackluster consumer confidence. Facebook’s dominance in the digital ad space is unlikely to translate to a virtual world in a way that resonates with consumers and protects their privacy. Furthermore, advertisers would do well to interrogate any promises made by the same company that famously lied about its video metrics in order to generate more ad revenue. The question of making money in the metaverse should shift away from one of ad delivery to one of enabling a thriving digital creator economy.
Building a metaverse that people actually want to inhabit is an extraordinary undertaking. Do we want Meta (or any one corporation, for that matter) to define the boundaries of our virtual universe? If consumers are expected to invest time and money in the project of building and inhabiting a shared virtual world, shouldn't those of us who are developing the metaverse guarantee that those consumers will retain ownership of their digital assets in perpetuity, independent of any particular platform? This is, of course, antithetical to the business model of the metaverse-as-platform known as Horizon Worlds. Though Zuckerberg has waved his hand in the direction of open VR initiatives, Meta’s quest for total dominance with consumers and its pattern of anticompetitive practices belie Zuck's hypocrisy. Those who choose to build a metaverse should embrace decentralization as a core tenet: as more consumers become aware of the dangers of disinformation and social engineering in networked spaces, more will seek to reclaim ownership of their data, their web presences, and their digital lives. Companies that stand in the way of this progress are likely to doom themselves to irrelevance in what will be a new user-centric digital economy.
Meta is facing a crisis of vision and leadership, one that will be very difficult to manage through a slumping economy, hiring freezes, and unease from investors. The power and promise of the metaverse lies not in its graphical fidelity or its ability to host glorified Zoom meetings in VR. The metaverse captures our imaginations precisely because it offers us the ability to leave behind the problems and pains of our real world (many of which, for the modern consumer, are created by the bad behavior endemic to online social networks like Facebook and Instagram). The metaverse should be seen as a chance to reinvent what it means to be online, to reconnect with our humanity, to make space for underrepresented voices, to bridge deep social and cultural divides, and to enable unprecedented digital creativity. Mark Zuckerberg has staked the future of his company on the success of his metaverse, but Horizon Worlds isn't the virtual cosmos we were promised in our favorite works of science fiction. We can (and should) do better.