The greatest impediments to changes in our traditional roles seem to lie not in the visible world of conscious intent, but in the murky realm of the unconscious mind.
—Dr. Augustus Napier
The Zuck is obsessed with another Augustus, world-conquering emperor Augustus Caesar. But the boy-who-would-be-emperor has a problem, something standing between him and greater wealth and power. Not the Facebook board; he’s neutered that via dual-class shares. Not the government; his 900-person comms department, coupled with a massive increase in lobbying expenditures, has dispensed with that nuisance. The last remaining obstacle is the world itself … it’s distracting.
So Zuck envisions a series of virtual worlds to absorb our remaining attention. The arbiter of activity algorithms in that world would be a god — and able to serve a shit-ton of targeted Nissan ads.
In 2014, Facebook acquired Oculus VR for $2.3 billion. Oculus was a Kickstarter-backed venture with a head-mounted virtual reality display in pre-production that was targeted mainly at immersive video gamers. The deal was controversial, but co-founder and boy genius Palmer Luckey defended it on Reddit: “I guarantee that you won’t need to log into your Facebook account every time you wanna use the Oculus Rift.”
By August 2020, Luckey and his co-founder were gone, and Facebook announced you would have to be logged into Facebook to use the Oculus headset. Luckey admitted that the skeptical responses to the deal “from people with more real-world experience than me were justified.”
VR headsets, along with similar products from Vive and Sony, will sell about 6 million units in 2021. A real market, but not a category that’s registered broad consumer adoption. Some heavily hyped projects have flopped, such as the notorious Magic Leap, which has raised $3 billion in venture capital over 10 years while frantically pivoting from one vaporware announcement to the next. Or Google Glass, which launched in 2013 but was pulled two years later. People swiftly realized it could do only a handful of things the iPhone could, and worse. Google won’t give up, though, as it refashions the wearable from Tron to hipster.
Wired’s David Karpf called VR the rich white kid of technology. “It never stops failing upward, forever graded on a generous curve, always judged based on its ‘potential’ rather than its results.”
And who loves VR headsets? Rich white kid Mark Zuckerberg. He plays virtual ping pong with the President of Indonesia and sneaks into the company’s VR demo room after hours. But Zuck isn’t pushing VR for gaming. “You’ve known me for a long time,” he once told a journalist. “I don’t optimize for fun.” He sounds like the absolute worst person on the planet to roll in Vegas with — a decent proxy for any person’s true character. But I digress.
I hate sitting in the passenger seat of my British SUV, as I’m certain I can drive better than whoever is behind the wheel at that moment. I can feel my feet pressing and depressing as if I’m actually driving. Take this times a billion, and you’ll be getting warm re understanding Mr. Zuckerberg. A guy who decided it was a good idea to hold an American flag while commandeering an e-foil electric surfboard after depressing our teens, perverting our elections, and making our discourse more coarse. Reportedly, a voice from the boat was yelling, “I’m proud of your progress — but we need to do better!”
That last paragraph has almost nothing to do with this post, but it felt good writing it.
Facebook You Can Wear to Work
To extend its run of success, Facebook must establish vertical distribution (i.e., hardware). As powerful as the platform is, the sixth-most-valuable company on Earth rests behind five others that all have more control over their distribution (i.e., iOS, Playstation, Android, Oil Wells, and Alexa). Facebook relies on other firms, including Apple and Google, for distribution. So the company is investing massively in hardware. With Oculus, Zuck sees a way to leapfrog mobile and laptops to connect people to Facebook in a more immersive and engaging way. And, more importantly, to enable him to treat Tim Cook as he does every elected official and technology ethicist: ignore him.
Facebook has also registered limited success penetrating the world in which most of us spend the majority of our time: work. Last week, Zuckerberg unveiled an attempt to use VR to expand Facebook’s reach into the corporate world.
This is the commercial Facebook made to launch Horizon Workrooms, its VR-based challenge to Zoom, Slack, and the world of work as we know it. The promo video would be concerning if it weren’t so lame. Instead of meeting over Zoom (or just joining an easy, old-fashioned conference call), everyone puts on a one-pound plastic headband and meets in a conference room that looks like something from Peacock’s newest animated series about corporate life. A woman snaps her fingers to change the color of her virtual shirt, and then she makes a magenta swirly line around some virtual documents, causing them to pile together and … sort of … merge? Oh, and nobody has legs.
Word is, the technology is going to mate with Microsoft’s Bob and give birth to Rosemary’s Baby. I’m especially proud of the last sentence.
Broadcast media is so desperate for relevance, they will all but guarantee to be a cartoon of access journalism. Alongside the official commercial, Facebook manufactured an even more craptastic “exclusive” virtual interview with Gayle King on CBS This Morning. I haven’t been this grossed out by the fawning of a TV journalist (“Wait, Mark, this is so cool … I can see all your hands.”) since Charlie Rose exalted Bezos and his octocopter delivery drones. BTW, that was eight years ago, and there’s zero chance a fucking octocopter is going to deliver the edibles I’d like (check that — need) right about now.
King didn’t see fit to inform viewers about the product’s numerous glitches and bugs, and she declined to ask any of the sort of questions a … wait for it … journalist might ask, if it were an interview vs. an infomercial. Like: How will Facebook protect private conversations? What’s the business model? Will Workrooms integrate with other companies’ hardware or virtual spaces?
The answers: poorly, ads, and NFW.
That’s So Meta
The most interesting aspect of the announcement, however, is that Facebook is pitching Workrooms not as a 3D version of Zoom, but as something called the “metaverse.”
Defining the metaverse is the kind of thing nerds fight to the death over. (Here’s an excellent nine-chapter epic to get you started on the literature.) I can tell you two things about it. First, it’s a future vision of the digital world beyond today’s internet, in which people socialize, work, and play across multiple domains, that is socially and economically integrated with the physical world. Second, Horizon Workrooms isn’t it.
The metaverse is a concept that’s been floating around tech for decades, and it is legitimately interesting. But also, legitimately not anywhere near real. Interest spiked after Epic Games announced a $1 billion funding round devoted to its “long-term vision of the metaverse” — well timed after a year of lockdowns and Zoom calls that have made a virtual world feel more real.
Multiplayer games are an illustration of what the metaverse could look like; they have the trappings of persistence and community. World of Warcraft is the most popular, and Eve Online is now part of MoMA’s permanent collection. Both are large online worlds populated by a mix of computer-controlled characters and human avatars who socialize, fight, create culture, and trade goods and services for (in-game) currency. (There are 10 million transactions a day on Warcraft, with some items trading for the equivalent of almost $1,000.) In the novel/film Ready, Player One, the hero lives in a dystopian trailer park but spends all his time going to school, socializing, and working “inside” OASIS, which is essentially World of Warcraft 2045.
The hot metaverse game of the moment is Fortnite (disclosure: investor). Once a relatively simple game in which 100 strangers fought one another elimination-style for sole possession of an island over and over again — think Hunger Games — it’s now a multibillion-dollar enterprise that hosts Travis Scott concerts and Christopher Nolan premieres. Its publisher, Epic, is all-in on the metaverse hype. The company opened its antitrust trial against Apple with its CEO claiming Fortnite isn’t a video game at all, but “a phenomenon that transcends gaming,” no less than the metaverse itself.
But 3D graphics and fantasy/sci-fi trappings are not what makes the metaverse. Twitter is also a virtual world, and in some ways it’s closer to the vision of the Metaverse than online games. It’s a persistent, online extension of reality, with a large and diverse community of contributors who trade in the true universal currency: our attention. Imagine Twitter, but with graphics and a currency … and you are getting there.
Cryptocurrency and its offspring the non-fungible token are tokens from the metaverse future, pieces of digital ephemera that are portable across digital spaces and can be exchanged for real-world goods.
The full metaverse lies in a distant future in which distinct virtual worlds coalesce into a single integrated online world that is in turn integrated with the physical world. Your identity, your relationships, your money are the same online and off, and among different communities within the Metaverse. It’s probably not a proprietary, branded environment, like a single website, but a linked world of multiple environments of varying public and private nature, like the Internet. Put another way, the interoperability of a metaverse is the key to becoming THE metaverse.
Zuckerberg has been on a metaverse kick lately, telling people that, in five years, he thinks Facebook will be known as “a metaverse company,” and mentioning the term 16 times on the company’s most recent earnings call vs. once for “advertising.”
Yet the metaverse, a technologist’s dream, is Facebook’s nightmare. It would essentially render the social network irrelevant. Facebook’s most valuable asset is its social graph, its dataset of users, links between users, and their shared content. In a metaverse future, we’ll all have identities on the metaverse, and anyone can open a virtual space for sharing photos of your 10-year-old’s birthday party or arguing over vaccines. BTW, they work … really well.
There will be trillions of dollars in value created by the creators of these spaces, and the infrastructure to support them, but an open world of interoperable identities and information is antithetical to Facebook’s project, which is to keep you on Facebook. (The same is true for Twitter, of course, but two of Twitter’s great advantages are that it isn’t a well-run business, and that it has far fewer legacy assets to inhibit a pivot into a metaverse-friendly model.)
So Zuckerberg has a different vision. Make Facebook the metaverse. He told Gayle King that he saw that as a five- to seven-year project, which tells you what you need to know. The metaverse, as everyone but Zuck defines it, is decades away. The technical challenges alone are immense. Zuck’s plan is clear: He’ll build out a VR presence so Facebook looks like the metaverse, extend it into the corporate environment through Workrooms, brand the whole thing “metaverse,” and then fight off all challengers with a war chest of ad money the model generates.
Will it work? Probably not, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a cause for concern. We’ve been having these structural arguments about the digital world since the web first emerged 25 years ago. In the 1990s, America Online was a “walled garden,” while the Internet was an “open ecosystem.” And though the market has tended to favor innovation, the trend toward consolidation and anti-competitive behavior is troubling. A single-owner metaverse is not an ideal future.
I believe Mark Zuckerberg’s passion for the metaverse stems from a desire to exit this one. A man who’s become the fifth-wealthiest person in the world before turning 40 and has more influence than any individual in history (I believe this), and yet he’s increasingly viewed as a menace. I believe he likely finds this bewildering and frustrating. And maybe unfair. We should acknowledge his achievements. We should set him free, into the metaverse.
Life is so rich,
P.S. The team at Prof G Media is taking off next week to rest up for fall. We’ve got a lot on tap, with new email products coming (let us know how you like Chart of the Week), more video content, and … something big to be announced soon. No Mercy / No Malice will be back in your inbox September 10. Enjoy the Labor Day weekend.