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Net Giants Tech & Society

Lilliputians Will Tie Up Gulliver in the Metaverse

Zuckerberg selects his virtual outfit in the Meta announcement video.

Audacious. That is the only word to explain Mark Zuckerberg’s play to become the self-anointed king of the metaverse. This week Facebook announced the formation of a new parent company, Meta, and a full-steam-ahead approach to so-called Web 3.0. He seems to want to create a next-gen, distributed and ubiquitously immersive online world, where you will not just passively view the web experience, but will enter and interact with it. 

The shift of course is not dissimilar from Google’s new name Alphabet, coined in 2015 to allow it to move beyond the confines of a mere search engine into new realms. It’s a typical play for businesses that evolve beyond a single brand. But like Moses on the mountain, it’s likely Facebook will look down on the promised land of the metaverse (billions of dollars later) yet never dominate it the way that it has with social media.

This move evokes many mis-timed moves in Facebook’s past–think cryptocurrencies (several times), plays to dominate news, repeated privacy blunders and repositionings, and heedless application-platform moves that enabled data leaks like Cambridge Analytica. In the rebranding business, timing is everything, and Zuckerberg seems surprisingly tone deaf to the cadence. Big surprise.

During his Facebook Horizon announcement this week he pulled out all the charm he could summon, from playing a surfing game and making sunscreen jokes to talking about Facebook’s commitment to partnership. He says he wants to make the metaverse more open and help the burgeoning creator economy.

The 80 minute video demonstration/celebration of what Facebook’s metaverse might look like was a mixture of technically-exciting suggestions and cringeworthy vignettes. Overall, Zuckerberg, who aptly starred in the video, seemed like a guy who’d drunk the metaverse Kool-aid and has the money and resources to define what gets built. But the announcement had a used-car-salesman feel to it. “Gee, we sold you a lemon–so sorry. But look what we’re doing now!” He got high marks for tech prowess, low marks for authenticity.

Facebook is not cleaning up its shit in the real world (the real social media world of today, where it has made such a mess) but is instead trying to move on to the next world without a care in the world. La di da.

What could the company be thinking as it faces the wrath of almost uncountable government investigations in the U.S. and abroad?  Does it expect it can just abandon the sinking ship it’s been running and head to a new, shiny life raft?  How does its track record at Facebook prepare it for the even bigger responsibilities of a new type of more immersive, complex, and integrated virtual interaction?  

Facebook is Late to the Party

Zuckerberg is far from stupid. But he is not alone, nor is he early. Companies like Epic and Fortnite have already invested millions, have a direct line to the new generation, and don’t have such a tarnished reputation. Niantic and Snap, among other companies, are creating pieces of the metaverse that blend the real and physical world in ways that are refreshing and less dystopian. And others launch every day.

Money Doesn’t Buy Agility

A few months ago I wrote early looks at NFTs and the metaverse for this column. Who knew the metaverse frenzy would soon top tulip and dot.com manias, with so much stupid money being thrown at it?  Estimates say that the metaverse could be worth upwards of $82 billion by the end of the decade. Facebook is about to hire 10,000 workers to build its own, and plans to spend more than $10 billion on AR, VR, and metaverse tech this year alone. (As it spends about $5 billion annually on safety and security in its wobbly existing properties.) The question of who wins this battle–the pioneers, or the wealthy johnny-come lately–will be the David/Goliath story of the new internet. 

Disruptors Tend Not to Be the Old Guys, Right?

We’ve seen how disruption happens. It’s the Teslas, the Stripes, the Airbnbs, those nimble enough to see the holes, connect the dots, and move quickly but with focus. That was the Facebook of yore. It’s got too much baggage to move quickly now.

Moving Away from the Old Model

Facebook won’t be able to get away from their advertising business model. My suspicion is its metaverse will be a shopping mall with advertisers inventing a next generation of activations and ads.  But so many young metaverse companies are developing more interesting schemes.

Ties to Hardware and Facebook

We don’t know all the details yet but for the moment Facebook Horizon (the AR/VR/XR portion of meta) is too tied to Facebook’s hardware and Facebook’s past approach. Zuckerberg alluded to deals and openness, but for the moment you need a Facebook Oculus and a Facebook account to be in the club. 

The underlying tenets of the metaverse was supposed to have been that it was open, not owned by anyone, and interoperable between all platforms. Does that sound like Facebook to you? 

The Lilliputians will tie up Gullliver. 

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