Is There Hope for Facebook's Metaverse?
Facebook's rebrand is facing a mix of praise and skepticism for its new vision - is Zuckerberg making the right bet with the Metaverse?
It was the Fall of 2012, and Mark Zuckerberg was in trouble.
Joining the stage at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference for a fireside chat in a gray t-shirt (and what I can only assume are new balance sneakers), he was getting ready for a festive grilling by TechCrunch EIC Michael Arrington.
It was a bit bold to do a fireside chat at the time. Facebook was sitting quietly on mobile amid major pushes by Microsoft, Apple, and Google. The product velocity was stagnating, and the company had seen quite a tumble since its May IPO, with the stock price sitting at almost half of its opening that September.
He nervously answered question after question ending with this proclamation:
“This is maybe a perverse thing personally, but I would rather be in the cycle where people underestimate us.”
It was an interesting insight into the philosophy of Zuckerberg.
He’s used to being misunderstood and even welcomes it, a more tepid version of his fictional counterpart in Jessie Eisenberg.
Negative press? A mere detour on the road to the real entree of life-changing technology and world domination.
It’s perhaps not surprising that in 2021, as his company is on fire for moderation and ethical decisions with the Facebook Papers, Zuckerberg is still largely desensitized by his critics.
When he announced his Meta rebrand last Thursday, reactions were mixed.
Some critics scoffed and called it a distraction, others a whimsical pet project. Some even feared a more terrifying calculation of what could Facebook could do. (Who doesn’t love giving one of the country’s most significant personal data containers even more biometric data in a new reality with no guardrails and no rules, am I right?)
But Zuckerberg, even while his company got hammered with the backlash from the Facebook Papers and more threats of lawsuits and human rights abuse, stayed calm.
Unapologetic, he focused on keynote circuits, direct interviews, and marketing promotional video stops. He confidently repeated how Meta is the future, claiming that Facebook would be known as a Metaverse company.
As people grew lost wondering what would happen with Facebook’s content moderation and internal research plans, we now had a new question to grapple with: What the hell does all of this mean?
I wrote about the Metaverse back in March and why people should care that it exists, irrespective of whether they want it to exist.
Now, with the sixth-largest company in the US dabbling in it, it sends a greater signal that the Metaverse as a concept is going nowhere.
But to the average person who uses Facebook to schedule a few marketing ads or send a happy birthday post to that friend they haven’t talked to in six years, it’s hard to imagine the value of a Metaverse play.
The Metaverse probably doesn’t mean much to the person who uses it to consume or share photos and content.
Moreover, users who have already stalled on Facebook’s core product or grown disenchanted with the company’s directional ethics likely have little to gain with this announcement.
Now, I’m not one to doubt Zuckerberg. He’s a smart guy with limitless resources, multiple correct calls under his belt, and has an entire team that he has convinced to believe in this.
But it’s clear that Facebook is behind on its bets for creators and hasn’t had any significant innovations on its core product since stories, marketplace, and video. Even photos and events haven’t gotten so much of a touch-up in recent years.
So I think it’s fair to ask a more basic question: Is this the right bet to make at this time? How real is Facebook’s hope for a Metaverse-led future?
What Does The Metaverse Refer To?
You may be familiar with the Metaverse concept or have seen a tweet or two opine on it, but it might first help to take a step back and talk about what we mean by Metaverse.
In his piece about the Metaverse, VC Matthew Ball shares a few tenets of a Metaverse, which I touched on in my last piece. The core ones are that a Metaverse is interoperable (allows the transfer of assets across worlds), has some value or currency, and is continuous - it doesn’t start or end like a traditional video game.
To simplify, imagine that you had an avatar in a video game but that your avatar wasn’t just confined to that game. Your avatar could get accessories, items, clothing, and even develop its own identity. As you move through different games, cities, and worlds, you can bring your avatar and possessions. Shopping, fitness, work. All of that exists in the Metaverse.
This definition is close to what I imagine Zuck wants to do - where the Metaverse closely mirrors life. For example, you could have your house in the Metaverse, do your job in the Metaverse, socialize in the Metaverse - you could even theoretically *make money* in the Metaverse.
It took me a long time to learn what the Metaverse was when I first wrote about it. But contrary to popular belief, it’s not the same as AR/VR. So while these are tools for you to participate in a Metaverse, they are just that. Tools.
It’s also not as dystopian as a Black Mirror reality. Some of it is kind of cool. Zuck shows a video of him and his friends playing cards and face timing, nothing too out of the ordinary.
But what’s missing is who the Metaverse is for.
By Facebook’s calculation, it’s for.. everyone.
That, to me, is where it gets complicated.
Complementing a high-stakes launch, Meta has essentially introduced a positioning conundrum.
One of the problems with any big announcement made by a company as big as Facebook is that its audience spans many disciplines: geography, socioeconomic status, and even digital literacy.
Close to 2 billion people use the product, my mom and relatives overseas included. They comfortably use Whatsapp, Instagram, and a myriad of Facebook-adjacent products.
While I can’t speak for all of them, I’m reasonably sure very few of them know what a Metaverse refers to or what it does.
I decided to test my theory (sample size of one), and my mom has proven it so far.
By contrast, it’s not hard for someone to onboard onto Facebook or Whatsapp. The feed is self-explanatory, photos are self-explanatory, a messenger is self-explanatory. The outcomes are clear, and the features are built for quick-click use.
To shed light on the Metaverse, Zuckerberg shares some of the possibilities of the Metaverse in an hour-long video for Connect 2021.
You could gather that it’s some sort of “immersive platform that represents the next frontier of the internet,” but it predicates on familiarity with several terms. He introduces interoperability repeatedly, which will likely make technologists jump with joy. Still, to others, it will leave them lost until they also decide to jump into this hour-long video of use cases.
Now, I’m all for video as a marketing tool. This one is maybe an announcement that could’ve benefited from more of a self-serve landing page.
What’s more, it sounds like the sell is a paradigm that will change the world similar to mobile or the internet.
But software was easy to imagine once we had computers in our homes. Smartphones were easy to imagine once we had phones in our pockets.
The reference point for transitioning into a Metaverse is, at best abstract. We don’t know what we need to participate in this. Is it money? A whole lot of hardware devices? Does our company need to buy into the Metaverse for us to use all this?
It’s a lot of unanswered questions, and the company uses a clever stroke of a larger window (next decade!) to likely figure some of them out.
During his interview with Zuckerberg last Thursday, Ben Thompson asked pointedly about the audience of this whole announcement. Zuck danced a bit around the answer, finally settling on:
“I think that there’s a lot of ambiguity around what the Metaverse means. I think people say different things, and it means different things to different people, so I thought it would just be useful to put our stake in the ground on what we thought some of the most important use cases are going to be, but also just philosophically what some of the principles are that are most important around building it.”
See, even Grammarly has no idea what’s going on above.
It’s a challenge to launch any product. To rebrand your company around a concept that is ambiguous at best doesn’t make this challenge any more straightforward. We just have to trust Zuck and the team.
While Meta is starting on a complex argument to defend, there is another unwritten question: Is the Metaverse even the best solution to Facebook’s problems or mission?
Let’s dive deeper into that claim.
Is the Metaverse the Best Solution?
In one of my favorite positioning books, Obviously Awesome by April Dunford, there is a framework she proposes that includes a simple question:
“What would customers use if your product did not exist?”
For most shifts on the internet, there was a relatively straightforward value-addition to the next big thing.
Google saved you a lot of time over the alternative, reading through encyclopedias or manual web navigators. An iPod saved you from the inefficiency of having to buy racks of different CDs. Amazon saved you the cognitive overload of having to do any level of complicated shopping.
To figure out whether the Metaverse makes sense as the next direction, we first have to go back to the problem that the product is aiming to solve.
Luckily, Zuckerberg is relatively transparent about this in his introduction video about Meta. They are a company built to connect people, and the Metaverse is the next frontier of that. He expounds on that:
“The ultimate promise of technology is to feel present with people we care about.”
After this, the supposed assumption is that the Metaverse solves this problem, that we can hop into the future of the Meta and suddenly feel less lonely.
They’ve even introduced technology to facilitate real-life presence: avatars that look similar to you, locations that you’ve familiarised yourself with, and even facial sensors so you can recognize non-verbal expressions.
Ignoring the data risks (ah!), I see two problems with this.
First, connecting with others is a collaborative activity.
You can go to a real-life party and not so much as connect with a soul as long as the others aren’t open to it. Connecting isn’t simply a matter of walking into a place and existing - it’s a thoughtful amalgamation of the right questions, conversations, and depth. You can feel present with others on a Zoom if the environment is set up in a way conducive to it. It solves the problem with merely an internet connection.
Take work as another example. Zuckerberg stresses the importance of collaborative work meetings in the Metaverse as an alternative to Zoom meetings, imagining this will be a better solution. But the goal of work meetings is to be productive. It’s a matter of the context, not the environment, that makes the difference here.
The second problem is more philosophical. The assumption that people don’t feel present or connected to others is because they don’t have the right technology.
To breed collective empathy in a group of strangers requires a lot of trust; you have to assume people left to their own devices bring out the best in each other.
This gets back to the core problem Facebook was facing at the beginning: bad actors, misinformation, and mental health are already decaying the core product of the company.
In a world driven by the Metaverse, a new reality is constructed on fewer rules. How does a Metaverse get moderated? How does trust permeate in a world of avatars and fake identities? Does governance exist in the Metaverse?
Saying it’s the next frontier because it’s exciting is one thing - but is it a better alternative to our current methods of presence and connection?
For all the merits around decentralization with NFTs, there is still a lot of money lost and ambiguity in a place of little regulation.
Does Facebook have more than a band-aid for this?
Over the last few days, I’ve read a lot of bullish and bearish takes on Meta.
Packy McCormick had a great piece this morning on value extraction from the Metaverse with a take that I largely agree with:
“The existence of assets that are independent of any one app or platform, that sit above them all in a Superverse, changes the game. Users will be able to log in to virtual worlds with their wallets, bring the things they own with them from world to world, directly connect with and message any other wallet and build up their social graph independent of anyone app.”
In short, Packy is touching on the value of interoperability, where instead of games where you can buy items that only exist within that game’s fictional universe (shout out to all the Neopets potions I lost), you can now keep what you own anywhere.
It makes the concept of digital commerce much more attractive and perhaps more readily applicable than the current iteration of NFTs.
For people who may not want to buy a cartoon monkey, there’s more value in purchasing art from a friend in the Metaverse or even an article of clothing for your avatar. What’s more, with digital transactions, artists can continue to keep track of when items exchange hands.
Certainly a new way of establishing a commercial footprint that isn’t entirely captured by retail commerce or even on-chain transactions, where you’re interacting with wallet addresses instead of people you can see.
But while the NFT market currently touches about 2% of Americans, the larger question is what role the Metaverse plays for the average person who uses Facebook as a tool for day-to-day connection.
In Ed Zitron’s piece about the Facebook name change, he takes a different, more skeptical tone:
The technology required to get even a few steps into the totally fictional metaverse world Mark has rendered in his agonizing 11-minute long video is so far off that it is honestly irresponsible for a public company to act as if it’s possible. And even when it is, how much will it cost? How easily will it be available? What about poorer countries that have enjoyed using services like WhatsApp and Facebook for free - are they left out of the metaverse?
All good points that I noted above.
When I think about the mass exodus from Facebook’s core product, the number of explanations required to sell this in, and the general sporadic activity from Facebook, it’s not clear to tell how much of this rebrand is conviction or desperation.
In some ways, if you have a bias toward one, you might be right at this time.
Sure, there is a day where I could imagine some elementary use case - going to a grocery store in the Metaverse and getting those same groceries delivered to your house—may be going to a party in the Metaverse—buying and selling digital assets. All of that is possible.
My prediction is that the Metaverse will do fine - possibly bring in users in the tens of millions of Facebook, just given the target market Facebook has to work with and what we already know as a reference point for web3. It won’t fail to attract interest, like Linkedin’s stories, nor will it have competing internal interests, like Twitter’s Fleets.
But it goes back to what success is for the Metaverse. If success is merely existing vs. dying, then it will be fine. No trillion-dollar company will quickly kill off a ten-year investment.
If it’s a connection, however, that’s a more extensive call to action.
If Meta wants genuine connection and inclusivity that helps people connect with those they care about, they need to seriously consider the trade-offs and focus less on building worlds to meet some sort of false-reaching prophecy of the future and more on building the right ones.
Maybe the first step is a comms strategy that actually explains all of this.