Several upper-echelon tech companies announced earnings last week, including Apple, Microsoft, Google, and Facebook. They all have some things in common. They’re all making lots of money: Each benefited because they are mainly digital companies, well positioned to profit from the increased time we spent within digital spaces during the pandemic. And they all have a stake in something called the “metaverse.”
What’s that? The metaverse is a sort of shared digital reality experienced within the lenses of augmented reality glasses or within the sealed-in space of virtual reality headgear—a digital world where you can work, play, and socialize. (The term comes from the Neal Stephenson sci-fi novel Snow Crash.)
The tech company talking the loudest about the metaverse lately is Facebook. In an interview with The Verge’s Casey Newton, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said this: “I think over the next five years or so, in this next chapter of our company, I think we will effectively transition from people seeing us as primarily being a social media company to being a metaverse company.”
Facebook believes its users will eventually experience the social network not on a smartphone screen but superimposed over the real world they see through the AR glasses. The company is now exploring how to create a map of the real world so that this digital, social layer can be put over it, with certain digital items anchored to certain physical places. In one use case the glasses may superimpose around the head of a person approaching in the real world that person’s social information such as name, city, relationship status, interests, and message history. Virtual meetings between avatars can happen within real-world spaces. Cameras within the glasses will detect where the user’s eyes are moving.
The idea that Facebook might be moving in this direction is far from new: Here’s a seven-year-old article by Fast Company’s Mark Wilson broaching the subject. But recently, based on the amount of money being spent by both tech giants and smaller players such as Roblox, Epic Games, and Niantic to create aspects of a metaverse, the concept has never felt closer to reality. And coming at it from a social direction might give Facebook an advantage. Who wants a metaverse that isn’t social, after all?
But one of the advantages of Zuckerberg talking up the metaverse now is that it gives us more time to fully process all the negative repercussions if Facebook were to play as big a role as it does in today’s online social spaces.
Giant seeks next conquest
Facebook reported revenue of $29 billion during its April, May, and June quarter. That’s a 56% increase over the same quarter a year ago, which occurred just after the pandemic shutdown commenced in mid-March. An increase of that size for a company as mature as Facebook is a rarity, and some of that stems from a sag in Facebook ad revenue during last year’s June quarter, when the pandemic had just gotten started and brands pulled back ad spending. But the company also reported a 12% year-over-year increase in the number of people who use at least one of its apps every month. That number is now 3.51 billion—a head-spinning figure even at Facebook scale.
Building a metaverse might deliver Facebook from its reliance on Apple’s and Google’s app stores and operating systems.
During the hour-long call last Wednesday, Zuckerberg uttered the word metaverse 20 times, calculates CNBC’s Steve Kovach. Zuckerberg explained that his company hopes to make money by selling digital goods within the metaverse. Advertising will also be a part of the business, perhaps triggered by things users rest their eyes upon. The company said in a July 26 blog post that it’s now creating a new product team inside its AR group, Facebook Reality Labs, dedicated to developing Facebook’s metaverse.
Building a successful metaverse might deliver Facebook from an old conundrum: Its reliance on Apple’s and Google’s app stores and smartphone operating systems. Such a platform could also put Facebook in a position to access unprecedented levels of personal information about its users, and about people its users encounter in the real world.
Facebook’s most dangerous threat is as a vast platform for misinformation and disinformation. Agents of the Russian government successfully used the platform to spread political misinformation that influenced the 2016 and 2020 U.S. elections. Domestic terrorists used Facebook to plan the Capitol insurrection of January 6. And Facebook is a primary source of misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccines that’s still causing unnecessary deaths today. It’s easy to imagine a metaverse shaped by Facebook being rife with all the same civic hazards as its current platforms, in turbocharged form.
Don’t underestimate Facebook
It’s entirely possible that Facebook’s vision of the metaverse will not come to pass, or the experience won’t be adopted by a majority of users. It wouldn’t be the first tech company that tried to capture the imagination of investors and others by projecting a fanciful view of its next great generation of technology. (Remember when Microsoft’s Satya Nadella said chatbots would fundamentally revolutionize computing?) And Zuckerberg himself has made predictions about Facebook’s future products that haven’t panned out.
But Zuckerberg’s been right about some very important things. He rallied his company to scramble to move its platform onto smartphones. That seemed to work out. He knew that Oculus and Instagram would be big, so he bought them. He said in 2016 (before TikTok) that “we’re going to be in a world a few years from now where the vast majority of the content that people consume online will be video.” That’s proved out. Zuckerberg said on his company’s last earnings call that “video now accounts for almost half of all time spent on Facebook,” adding that Reels, Instagram’s version of TikTok, is the “largest contributor to engagement growth.”
The metaverse would be far more immersive, and could easily take up even more of our attention.
Just as many people are working on the software experiences that will be delivered through the glasses. In a metaverse, lots of AR experiences would share a common reality, and users could navigate between them, as Zuckerberg described. You might social network in one place, then move to some other digital place for gaming, then move somewhere else for concerts or movies.
One of the toughest problems—one Facebook has been working on for several years—is mapping a common 3D graphical world to the real world so that users can see the same digital content when they’re in the same real-world places. Google relies on this kind of mapping when it places augmented reality wayfinder graphics to provide walking directions for users within its Maps app (the graphics are viewable on a smartphone, but may be seen through glasses in the future). Niantic built a map under its 2016 Pokémon Go AR game to let all the players see the same Pokémon in the same physical places.
The quality of mixed-reality content, and how well it’s integrated around and within the real world in front of our eyes, may determine whether people eventually adopt it. If it’s done artfully, the little displays within the glasses might become our main computing environment. We’d no longer have to keep our noses in our smartphone screens, which would be nice, but at the same time the canvas of software makers and platform operators would become far bigger. The user interface would overlay most of the world in front of our eyes. It would be far more immersive, and could easily take up even more of our attention. The technology would grow closer—potentially in a far better position to mediate our experiences and know things about us. We’d need to trust it.
That’s why Facebook is the wrong company to operate this computing platform. Within the metaverse, where user privacy could be greatly exposed, the company’s worst instincts might be magnified as it harvests user data and keeps the ad machine humming. In the metaverse there will be much more opportunity for commerce; users would have to trust Facebook not to clutter the world in front of them with flashing ads and offers of digital goods. There’d be more content to moderate, and Facebook would likely continue relying heavily on artificial intelligence to do it. There’d be new ways for content to go viral in a metaverse, and Facebook might continue to struggle as misinformation and disinformation proliferates.
If the next big personal computing platform turns out to be a metaverse within mixed-reality glasses, it could unleash all kinds of creativity and new experiences. I hope it also brings with it a totally new kind of social network—one that is far less centrally controlled, better moderated, not dependent on user surveillance, and less rewarding of misleading content.