Oct 29, 2021 - Technology
Column / Signal Boost

Facebook's long, bumpy road to the metaverse

Photo of Mark Zuckerberg introducing Facebook's metaverse plan standing in front of a modernist fireplace
Screenshot: Axios

Mark Zuckerberg painted an expansive view of the metaverse on Thursday, but the "embodied Internet" he envisions is still years off, while the concerns about the company's present are both real and urgent.

Why it matters: Zuckerberg insists that his company can both chip away at its current problems and build toward its future vision. Critics, meanwhile, argue Facebook is trying to turn the page without shouldering responsibility for trouble it has already created.

Driving the news:

  • Zuckerberg's keynote speech at a virtual developers' event Thursday focused largely on a far-off vision in which there is a single virtual world, known as the metaverse, which can be entered through a range of devices, many of which are not even technologically feasible yet.
  • This embodied Internet would allow people to live and work in virtual space using a mix of realistic and fantastic avatars, donning all manner of virtual clothes and accessories.
  • As he outlined the vision, Zuckerberg took a number of shots at Apple, painting the iPhone maker and Google as the real threats to competition and the metaverse as a more open and competitive successor to today's internet.
  • And, then there was the rebrand, with Zuckerberg announcing the company will henceforth be known as Meta, a move that he insists has nothing to do with current controversies.

The big picture: Facebook is embarking on a broad and ambitious future, but it's important to remember just how many thorny new questions we'll all face in a digital universe that puts physically distant people in close proximity.

  • Among them: What types of speech and actions are permitted and who polices a world that stretches beyond today's legal jurisdictions.
  • It's also worth remembering that the company has talked about how many problems with its social network caught the company unaware.

Between the lines: There are other challenges beyond safety and privacy along the path to the metaverse — especially if there really is to be a single metaverse for everyone, rather than tons of different, incompatible digital universes.

Facebook says it wants to make sure that happens, working with the rest of the tech industry to ensure that digital goods will work across multiple companies' virtual fiefdoms.

  • Technically, that isn't impossible, especially given how much 3D content is today created using one of a couple popular game engines, such as Unity and Unreal Engine.
  • But getting Google, Apple, Microsoft and others to agree on the business terms that govern such a shared metaverse could be a tricky proposition.
  • And while Zuckerberg extended an invitation to other companies to join him in his vision, he also criticized the business models that many have employed with the mobile internet — setting up some tough questions about how this virtual world will be financed and, eventually, monetized.

Our thought bubble: Facebook (and society more broadly) has an opportunity to use the time it will take to build a metaverse to investigate all the ways the vision coud go wrong, as well as to set norms and expectations.

  • That's the plan, insists Meta CTO Andrew Bosworth. He notes that Facebook understands that no one has clear answers yet to big questions, such as when conversations in the metaverse should be monitored and when they should be private, or where to set the balance between privacy and safety.
  • "I am eager to have those conversations," Bosworth told me on Thursday. "I don’t think we should be making those decisions, certainly not by ourselves."
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