Meta—the company formerly known as Facebook—desperately wants you to believe that it is going to put the future on your face. That was the gist of Mark Zuckerberg’s hour-and-a-half announcement today that the largest social-media company in history was officially rebranding, and reorienting itself to focus on “the metaverse.”
The news was jarring, but hardly surprising. For Facebook, 2021 has been the Year of Trying to Make the Metaverse Happen. First, there was the splashy announcement in The Verge, courtesy of Zuckerberg himself, that Facebook would no longer be a social-media company. Instead, it would transition into “a metaverse company.” In Zuckerberg’s words, this means building out “an embodied internet, where instead of just viewing content—you are in it.”
In short order, Zuck dropped by a CBS morning show to demonstrate Horizon Workrooms, where users would be embodied in sub-Sims-quality avatars—not just viewing a dull virtual conference room, but in it. Then Facebook launched its partnership with Ray-Ban to sell a pair of privacy-challenged augmented-reality sunglasses. Then came the news that Facebook was hiring 10,000 people in Europe to work on building the metaverse. Then, finally, word came last week that Facebook would rebrand itself with a moniker that reflects its newfangled metaverse aspirations. That name, we now know, is Meta.
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.
Set aside the fact that the metaverse has always been an explicitly dystopian idea, one lifted directly from a hyper-violent cyberpunk novel, and that it’s highly dubious whether this is a framework worth pursuing at all. Facebook is serious enough about the metaverse business to make a heavy investment in hiring and product development—it’s spending $10 billion on metaverse projects just this year—and it’s also far from alone in pursuing the concept. So it’s worth untangling why, exactly, that is.
There are at least three driving forces motivating Facebook and Co. to pursue the metaverse, and pursue it to the extent that one of our largest tech giants is willing to rename itself in its honor: Public-relations strategy, founder ego, and a growing, industry-wide business imperative.
The first reason is all about perception—these blue-sky big swings are coming at a time when Facebook sees its already-battered reputation being trampled by a parade of whistleblowers, damning reports, congressional hearings, and, now, the Facebook Papers. If 2021 has been Facebook’s year of trying to make the metaverse happen, it has been overshadowed by a year chock-full of scandals—so far, 2021 has happened to Facebook, not the other way around. If anything, it will be remembered as Facebook’s year of stepping on a recursive circle of rakes it laid out for itself. From the Facebook Papers alone, the company stands accused of burying data gathered by its own researchers showing that its products are harmful to users, failing to stop groups that promote violence and sex trafficking, and watching the January 6 insurrection take shape on its platform.
So it should come as no surprise that Facebook would be eager to shift attention away from its scandal-plagued social-media business and onto something flashier, grander, more inspiring. Many have compared Facebook’s rebranding effort to Google’s 2015 move to reorganize itself as Alphabet, but this has a different flavor—Google was restructuring, and trying to head off antitrust complaints it saw down the road. This feels more like a reactionary decision, one guided by public-relations needs.
Zuckerberg himself is well aware of how his metaverse play might appear, and prefaced his announcement today by saying, “I know that some people will say that this isn’t a time to focus on the future, and I want to acknowledge that there are important issues to work on in the present. There always will be.”
There are corollaries here: Plenty of companies have actively worked to distance themselves from the products that are the backbone of their businesses, though few of them have seen market capitalizations in excess of $1 trillion. Philip Morris, most famous for producing Marlboro cigarettes, rebranded as Altria in 2003, after it became abundantly clear that its product is extremely proficient in killing its users. Its slogan is now “Moving Beyond Smoking.” After it became evident that fossil fuels like oil were warming the planet, BP rebranded itself as Beyond Petroleum in 2000, signaling that it would begin investing in clean-energy technologies. It never seriously did.
I expect the maneuver from Facebook to play out similarly, a move designed to make a case for its expanded importance and a focus on new horizons—but one, given the enormity and centrality of its social-media business, likely to be dragged down by the inertia of the more prominent enterprise and wind up a footnote in the company’s history.
But I do think that underneath it all, Zuck means it. Facebook is now not only constantly fielding accusations that it fosters toxicity and spreads misinformation, but, more important, perhaps, to a world-beating tech titan, it’s boring. It’s the place where people go to get updates from that one guy they went to high school with who still posts there and where yelly news copy is sandwiched between anti-vax diatribes and tiny-font ads. Zuckerberg is a tech billionaire, goddamn it—shouldn’t he be aspiring to something more?
The metaverse is likely propelled as much by the founder’s ego as it is by PR stuntery. Behind the opportunism is Zuckerberg’s desire to take a billionaire-size step into the unknown, à la Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk, something that can truly make a dent in the future, rather than running an ad-stuffed social-media feed that is no longer anyone’s idea of a bold new tomorrow. Zuckerberg has talked about how he was inspired by the science fiction of the metaverse when he was younger, and he clearly loves the novel Ready Player One; new recruits to his Oculus division were handed copies of the book upon hiring. Becoming a hero in the metaverse feeds Zuck’s ambitions the way aspiring to space travel feeds Bezos and Musk.
But, importantly, there is a third layer here, one that perhaps justifies the hifalutin science fictionality to the rest of the C suite. The truth is that all of Silicon Valley, not just Facebook, is in desperate want of a big new idea.
At the beginning of last decade, the star venture capitalist Marc Andreessen made waves with his prediction that software would eat the world, and so it has—to a point. But there is only so much of the physical world for software to eat, especially as long as the primary access portals are confined to rectangular screens that can be entered just at certain times, and sometimes the physical world proves resistant to digestion.
Smart cities went bust. The dream of big data proved dubious, diffuse, and ultimately, dead. The app-based “Uber for X” model is, as we speak, collapsing under the weight of never-arrived profitability and its reliance on labor exploitation. And the social-media stalwarts are stagnating: Growth is down not just for Facebook’s flagship social-media app, but for the once-impervious Instagram. It’s down for Twitter and Snapchat too.
The industry is in need of a new framework, a new apparatus, not just a product or a service or a new sector to mine for enterprise contracts. It needs a new idea, and the metaverse fits the bill. Artificial intelligence gets it part of the way, with the gold rush for neural net-based software, but even that is somewhat niche. NFTs and the cryptomarket are too opaque and volatile for most. That promise, as tech companies see it, is easy to intuit. We may always feel like we’re on our phones too much, that we’re already devoting a surfeit of time to our screens, but the truth is we have much more time to give our platforms. If we had screens over our eyes, we could be captive consumers of content and advertising quite literally all the time. Not only that, but if the metaverse went mainstream, it would necessitate a whole swath of new hardware and profit-generating apps too.
This is the reason that, against all odds, no matter how lame the demos and ideas might seem, people keep talking about the metaverse. Why tech PR firms keep filling reporters’ inboxes with metaverse buzzwords. Why the augmented-reality-goggle maker Magic Leap, after being written off as kaput, was revived with half a billion dollars of new investment this year. The industry needs this framework—at a moment of “unprecedented liquidity for VC funds,” as the investor Matt Cohen put it at Crunchbase, investors are dying for something like a metaverse to pour capital into.
It may be true, as David Karpf wrote in Wired, that historically, “metaverse” technologies like VR have been “the rich white kid of technology”—continually failing and yet being granted opportunity after opportunity to succeed. Same, to a lesser extent, with AR, which Google famously tried to make happen with its Glass and was laughed out of the room 10 years ago. Snapchat’s glasses barely made a blip, and the dustbin of technology past is littered with failed VR headsets.
Stop trying to get us to put shit on our faces, we might want to yell in unison toward Menlo Park. But the insanity of this moment may be that it may not matter. With enough money on the table, and with the historically juiced tech industry uniting around it like this, we may get a metaverse whether we like it or not, in some form or another. I personally think Facebook’s effort in particular is destined to fail, if only because Facebook is almost comically ill-equipped, culturally and politically, to bring a project of this stature into being.
Allowing this company—this industry—to rush headlong into building anything remotely metaverse-like would merely reproduce, if not exacerbate, the problems that arose when it hastily launched the social-media platforms that now define online life. But with Facebook desperately trying to change the terms of the game, Zuckerberg looking to assert himself as more than just the operator of a particularly toxic yearbook feed, and the conditions ripe for the industry to pour cash into the pieces necessary to build some metaverse-shaped thing, they may just wind up succeeding—and replicating outright the dystopian metaverse their source material has warned us about.