Will Zuckerberg’s grand vision for Meta flop?

29 Oct 2021

Mark Zuckerberg during the Connect 2021 keynote. Image: Meta

The company formerly known as Facebook is betting its future on the metaverse, an unproven unreality.

“The metaverse will be the successor to the mobile internet,” said Mark Zuckerberg in the opening salvo of his Connect keynote on Thursday (28 October).

Going all in on this metaverse vision, Zuckerberg is now chair and CEO of Meta, the new name of what is now the parent company of Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, the Oculus family of VR products, and Reality Labs, its R&D business focused on AR and VR.

In its latest earnings report earlier this week, the company then known as Facebook revealed that the Reality Labs segment would become its own entity with its own financial reporting for the coming quarter. Prior to this, the company announced that it will hire 10,000 people in the EU to work on its metaverse project. On the earnings call, the investment in building the metaverse was earmarked at $10bn for 2021 alone, with more to come in the next several years.

The last earnings call with Facebook as the umbrella name for the company’s family of brands also addressed one of its biggest challenges. Facing increasing competition for younger users, Zuckerberg said his company would now treat this audience as its “north star”. At the time, this meant Instagram’s Reels and other video-based features would see more prominence on the company’s social media apps, in order to level up to chief competitor TikTok.

Even then, it was well known that Facebook was preparing a rebrand to reflect its focus on the metaverse, which itself could prove attractive to young, gaming-obsessed digital natives. But the naive vision of this concept presented by Zuckerberg just looked like a childish fantasy.

‘It’s unsettling to be invited by Zuckerberg to join him in an unreal world he controls but can’t moderate’

Very little about Zuckerberg’s Connect keynote was real. The pre-recorded, partially animated and heavily scripted presentation relied heavily on a fiction of mixed reality where bodied human beings interact in digital spaces. The bulky, face-hugging hardware required to enter the metaverse was most conspicuous in its absence. Apparently, Zuckerberg hopes to attract the next generation to a version of the internet that resembles the hollow fantasy of a Web 1.0 teenager.

There were some actual product announcements, though. Popular gaming title Grand Theft Auto is being developed for Quest 2, the latest VR gaming system from Oculus. And a new fitness pack coming to Quest 2 aims to fix the problem of VR fitness being a sweaty, clunky business.

A $150m investment to support creators of immersive VR education was also announced, as Meta’s grand ambition is to break AR and VR experiences out of gaming and apply mixed reality to settings such as the workplace or learning environments. Being primarily a social media company up until yesterday, it also wants to see the metaverse become the space in which we connect with one other.

It’s unsettling, though, to be invited by Zuckerberg to join him in an unreal world he controls but – going by past experience – can’t moderate. It would be scarier still if it looked like it had any chance of succeeding.

Zuckerberg was keen to emphasise that his company is not about technology but about connecting people. Unfortunately, his desperate attempt to make it look like intensively digitised interactions can be as meaningful as those in real life comes in the context of a world that has learned the value of physical presence in a painful way.

Yes, digital connectivity served to make pandemic lockdowns more palatable, but just look how we rushed to feel the warm presence of our loved ones as soon as that was available to us. We have learned how these tools are helpful, useful, even vital, but no substitute for the real thing. And if you think Zoom fatigue is bad, imagine what a physical and mental drain being suited up in sensors and optical trickery would be for the human body over extended periods.

Meta is the next chapter of the story for Facebook and Zuckerberg said that this is a journey that’s going to go on for decades. He claims that the glut of this decision was hashed out in just six months and it comes at a troubling time for the tech company, which has been facing weeks of intense criticism from the press and policymakers.

“The last few years have been humbling for me and our company in a lot of ways,” Zuckerberg admitted. He could well be feasting on humble pie for years to come as the first thing he has spearheaded since launching the format of social media we’ve all come to know looks set to be a mega flop.

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Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.