When Facebook changed its name last month to Meta, it said it was because it is shifting its focus from its social networking apps to Mark Zuckerberg's dream of building the metaverse. There are plenty of reasons to be critical of the move--the most common that the company is simply trying to deflect some attention away from the latest round of controversies confronting the company.
That's all fair criticism, but it misses a much bigger point. Beyond all of the ways that we've learned Facebook is probably bad for society on the whole, the reason its metaverse strategy is likely to fail is that Facebook is bad at all the things it needs to build the metaverse.
As developer and podcaster John Siracusa pointed out on the most recent episode of ATP:
I don't understand why people are taking Facebook seriously. Facebook can want this all they want, but they just don't have the skillset ... Historically, Facebook has been terrible at everything you need to do for the metaverse.
Seriously, when you think about what will be required to build the next version of the internet--the one we will spend most of our time immersed in--Facebook isn't good at any of those things. What Facebook is really good at is gathering user activity and feeding it into recommendation algorithms to keep those users engaged so it can show them more ads.
It turns out that's a pretty good business model, despite the potential societal harms it causes. Facebook has made a lot of money selling ads--it's the second-largest ad platform in the world, after Google search. What it isn't, however, is good at the four things it would need to build out the metaverse--or at least a version any reasonable person would want to spend time in.
It's not great at making hardware.
Take the Portal, for example. That's the name for Facebook's attempt to build a device for making video calls with your Facebook friends. It's not a good device, despite the fact that the pandemic has shown that people are very much willing to use services like FaceTime or Zoom to stay connected to people they can't be with physically. I don't think Facebook has ever disclosed how many Portal devices it has sold, but there is probably a reason for that.
Facebook, or Meta, also makes the Oculus. Sure, for a virtual reality (VR) headset, Oculus is fine, but it's certainly not compelling enough to convince billions of people to strap one to their face for hours at a time. Also, Facebook didn't create Oculus, it bought a company that was already making headsets but it still hasn't made any progress beyond a small sampling of VR games.
It's not much better at making software.
Despite the fact that almost 3 billion people use Facebook's apps on a regular basis, the main Facebook app isn't very user-friendly or well designed. Instagram and WhatsApp are arguably better, but that's only because Facebook hasn't messed them up, yet.
If you think about it, the software Facebook has built from scratch isn't great. If you're going to build the platform that you hope will serve as a place people go for work, school, gaming, and entertainment, it's going to have to be really good and it just isn't. Even the company's Horizon Workrooms, its VR conferencing tool, is mostly floating bodies interacting in a cartoonish environment.
It's horrible at moderating content.
Of course, where things really start to become obvious is Facebook's problem with managing its platforms. When it comes to moderating content, I don't know anyone who would argue Facebook does a great job. Even Zuckerberg himself admits that eliminating hate speech and misinformation is just too difficult to expect Facebook to be good at it.
What Facebook is good at is creating addictive social engineering tools that keep people engaged so that the company's apps can track your activity and show you more ads. It is very good at recommendation engines and algorithms designed to show you content that keeps you engaged.
Except--and I know I've said this already--if the metaverse is going to be where we spend all of our time, it's nice to think it might at least be friendlier than your average social media thread.
It keeps making the experience worse for its users.
I'm not even talking about the types of content you might be exposed to on Facebook. I'm talking about the ways the company keeps changing its apps to make it harder to do the things you really want to do, in favor of the things Facebook wants you to do.
For example, Facebook keeps changing Instagram to make it harder, and requires more taps to share photos, while making shopping features more accessible. It doesn't mean the shopping feature is bad, but just because Facebook has decided people should spend more time shopping on Instagram, doesn't mean that's how users feel about it.
It's hard to see Facebook building a new platform that's any different. Clearly, Facebook's biggest concern is controlling its own destiny--one not restricted by the rules of Apple and Google's App Stores. It's trying to move past the smartphone into whatever is going to be next. In general, that's a logical business move.
The problem for Facebook is that it would be like a cigarette company deciding that it was going to pioneer the way for the future of health food stores. No one would take it seriously, and everyone would point out that a cigarette company doesn't have any of the experience or skills needed to build Whole Foods. Everyone would be talking about it.