Why Mark Zuckerberg is going meta
Facebook's "next chapter," Mark Zuckerberg says, is to be prime builder of "the metaverse" — an open, broadly distributed, 3D dimension online where, he says, we will all conduct much of our work and personal lives.
The big picture: Zuckerberg admits Facebook will only be one of many companies building this next-generation model of today's internet — but he also intends Facebook to lead the pack.
Driving the news: Facebook announced Monday that it was creating a Metaverse product unit. That came on the heels of a company-wide speech on the topic by Zuckerberg at the end of June. He could address the theme further when Facebook reports quarterly earnings Wednesday.
Why it matters: The moves make clear that he sees this effort not as a long-term research undertaking or a moonshot-style roll of the dice, but as something his armies of engineers can start building now.
The vision, as Zuckerberg described in an interview with Casey Newton, is of virtually "teleporting" via a headset or AR glasses.
- "You can think about the metaverse as an embodied internet, where instead of just viewing content — you are in it. And you feel present with other people as if you were in other places, having different experiences that you couldn’t necessarily do on a 2D app or webpage, like dancing, for example, or different types of fitness."
Between the lines: Zuckerberg thinks Facebook missed the boat by not becoming the owner of its own smartphone ecosystem, the way Apple and Google did. He doesn't want to make that mistake again.
- He told Newton: "One of the reasons why we’re investing so much in augmented and virtual reality is mobile phones kind of came around at the same time as Facebook, so we didn’t really get to play a big role in shaping the development of those platforms. So they didn’t really develop in a very natural way, from my perspective."
Catch up quick: The term metaverse comes to us from Neal Stephenson's dystopian novel "Snow Crash," "Ready Player One" and other attempts to imagine what a virtual-reality-fueled internet might evolve into.
Investor Matthew Ball wrote a popular series of essays last year that attempted to define some traits of a "true" metaverse, including:
- It's not owned by a single company.
- It's widely interoperable — users can easily move stuff across technical and other kinds of boundaries.
- It has a "fully functioning economy."
By those criteria, the 3D worlds that gaming systems create — like Fortnite, whose maker Epic Games also wants to build a metaverse — don't quite make the grade.
Yes, but: It's easy to imagine a new set of neutral technical standards that would let you move characters and possessions from Fortnite to some other virtual world — knitting them together the same way the pre-web internet knitted together many previously disconnected online networks.
- That's where Zuckerberg and many others in tech think the metaverse is going.
- But any standard promulgated by a single company is going to face suspicions from competitors.
Our thought bubble: The original internet got built on government-invented standards that took root in the academic world and won out over "walled garden" networks operated by private companies like America Online, Compuserve, Prodigy (and Apple, too!).
- Its triumph came about because the early web made it easy for people who had only a smattering of technical skills to contribute content.
- A metaverse will need to open a similar cornucopia of collective contributions if it's going to capture our imagination.
Two elephants in the room: Governance and advertising.
Facebook today is trapped in a hornet's nest of political controversies and social criticism for its past failures: allowing misinformation to flourish, violating customer privacy and promoting engagement at the expense of users' well-being. It may not find customers ready to embrace its new role as architect of an alternate reality.
- In his interview with Newton, Zuckerberg admitted that today's VR worlds are often hostile to women, and promised efforts to help metaverse participants "feel safe."
- But despite years of experience, we've barely scratched the surface of the kind of mayhem and malice users can unleash on today's text-and-image social networks. A Facebook that's still grappling with how to govern the social network it has already built might well not be ready to shape a whole new immersive dimension.
The bottom line: Facebook is an ad company, and many of its problems today stem from its need to target ads based on user data. Expanding from two dimensions to three might give Facebook a chance to press "reset" on its business model. More likely, it will just deepen all the company's headaches.