On Thursday, at Facebook's developer conference, Mark Zuckerberg outlined his vision for the metaverse. Of course, the details were somewhat lost in the midst of his announcement that the company he founded in his Harvard dorm room was changing its name from Facebook to Meta, in an attempt to better define its mission as it moves beyond its core social media apps.
I definitely have thoughts about the idea that Facebook is changing its name, but those will have to wait. There is a far more important thread to pull on, which is what Zuckerberg had to say about the metaverse, and why it should concern all of us.
1. "I believe the metaverse is the next chapter for the internet."
First, a quick review of what we mean by the metaverse. Well, actually, it's what Mark Zuckerberg means.
Originally the term comes from a dystopian novel called Snow Crash (by Neal Stephenson) about people who escape a crumbling society by entering a "metaverse" where they can connect to people and share experiences. The basic idea is that, instead of picking up your iPhone to send a message to a friend to meet you at a movie theater, you'd put on a pair of glasses and "attend" the movie together, virtually.
That's a drastic oversimplification, but the bottom line is that the metaverse is coming in some form or another. When it does, I'm sure some of it will be interesting. That said, I'm not convinced that it will be a permanent fixture of our daily lives, especially if it means strapping a computer to your face.
Even if the metaverse is as spectacular as tech companies promise, I still don't think any of us should be particularly excited about it being built by Facebook. Obviously, Facebook is wildly successful as a business, but that success has come at a huge cost.
Over the past few weeks, it's become more clear than ever that Facebook is aware of the cost, but chooses to ignore it in pursuit of the bottom line. If you can't manage the platform you've already built, it's probably not a great idea to build an even more expansive one.
2. "This is not the way we are meant to use technology."
Maybe the most revealing aspect of the metaverse according to Facebook is the way Zuckerberg feels about how technology should be used. During his keynote, he explained it this way:
"Here we are in 2021 and all our devices are still built around apps, not people. The experiences we're allowed to build and use are more tightly controlled than ever. And high taxes on new creative ideas are stifling. This was not the way that we were meant to use technology."
Basically, Facebook has to play in Apple's sandbox and it doesn't like that. In response, it's building its own where it makes the rules and can't be told "sorry, you can't keep collecting people's information without asking their permission," because that's inconvenient and affects the bottom line.
Of course, Zuckerberg is frustrated that there is a middleman between himself and users. The metaverse is mostly an attempt to build something that isn't centered on the smartphone, because Facebook, now known as Meta, doesn't control the smartphone. That means that as successful as it has been, Facebook doesn't control its own destiny. Zuckerberg's vision of how people use technology is about just that by breaking away from Apple's control over the iPhone.
3. "The dream was to feel present with the people we care about."
Zuckerberg told a story about how, while he was in middle school, his dream was to build products that help people "feel present with the people we care about." This is telling for two reasons. The first is that "being present" isn't the same as "feeling present." I think the former is far more important to building real connections with the people you care about.
The second is that Facebook and Instagram are entirely built around the premise of disconnecting people from actual relationships in favor of virtual ones. People sit across from each other at the dinner table, scrolling through their Facebook News Feed instead of having conversations. If we've learned anything from the Facebook Papers, it's that the company will do almost anything to keep people engaged and spending more time on Facebook.
"We're a company that focuses on connecting people," Zuckerberg said. "While most other tech companies focus on how people interact with technology, we focus on building technology so people can interact with each other."
We think we're connected to people because we see an endless stream of images of people and places we know as we scroll through our News Feed. We post things on Instagram and get gratification every time the little red dot appears to let us know someone has commented or "liked" our photo.
That isn't creating connections with people but with technology. Of course, Zuckerberg's entire premise is that people would rather do things virtually instead of actually, you know, doing them. That benefits Facebook, which needs people to spend as much time as possible engaging on its platform so it can collect more data and show more ads.
4. "Immersive all-day experiences."
As Zuckerberg was describing the type of technology that will be needed for the metaverse to work, he talked about holograms, projectors, processors, and sensors "to map the world around you." But Zuckerberg gives away the game when he describes the reason for all of that technology:
"Immersive, all-day experiences will require a lot of novel technologies."
Even though we spend a lot of time looking at our smartphones, most of us have some sense of awareness that it's probably not the best thing for our mental or physical health. Yet Zuckerberg's dream for the future involves people spending all day wearing glasses and participating in virtual worlds instead of the one right in front of them.
5. "A future where, with just a pair of glasses ... "
In the Connect keynote, Zuckerberg described a future where you can have those immersive experiences "with just a pair of glasses." Zuckerberg expanded on the idea in an interview with Ben Thompson of Stratechery:
"I do think that for augmented reality, for example, one of the killer use cases is basically going to be you're going to have glasses and you're going to have something like EMG on your wrist and you're going to be able to have a message thread going on when you're in the middle of a meeting or doing something else and no one else is even going to notice."
It was striking that Zuckerberg's "killer use case" of how people might interact with the metaverse involves sending text messages to someone while having a face-to-face conversation with someone else. So, basically, the metaverse is the same as the regular internet, except it's less obvious that you aren't paying attention to the person in front of you. I'm just not sure that's the future we've all been promised.