Days before Facebook announced earnings, I wrote: “There is no metaverse, not for Facebook and they know it better than anyone.” Validation came hard and fast. By Wednesday, Facebook’s stock plunged. Growth was slowing and active users declining. Employees are considering bolting with their loot and commemorative foam thumbs. And Meta plans a pivot to video. Is this the end for its ambitious bet on the metaverse, a virtual reality hellscape where work, play, life, and death are indistinguishable?
It’s my vision of a future where the virtual world is all-consuming and far more relevant than the real one.— IN ‘THE MATRIX’, THE PUDGY NERDS WILL RULE, 2008
I just don’t believe we’re strong enough to resist a world of endless possibilities, instant gratifications, and candid shots of Britney.
Was I wrong? Is the demise of Facebook’s metaverse a sign that The Matrix is just a movie — and I’m just another sci-fi dork? Maybe. But first, let’s separate the two and define what a path to The Matrix requires.
FACEBOOK’S FEVER DREAM
Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg, and company built a spectacular machine. It monetized our need to connect and be heard. Before long, that machine became history’s second-greatest privacy invasion, after Google. How could giving one company all our personal data possibly derail? How??
You can Google all the controversies — or buy one of a dozen books by former employees. Armed with Facebook’s millions, they became heroic whistleblowers. For one low, low price of $13.97, let one of them blow (on) you. There are truths buried in their complicity.
By the time Mark Zuckerberg announced ‘Meta’, our BS detectors asphyxiated themselves. Mark’s Trust Tank was at ZERO. Regardless, ‘Meta’ would become the world’s premier provider of a non-existent service. The Metaverse demo looked like a slow child’s Etch-A-Sketch of The Matrix, where everything was a Zoom call, but nothing was as sexy as 1999 Keanu Reeves.
Am I being a prick? Ambitious visions take time. The first cars were glorified bicycles that ran on coal and steam. We wouldn’t envision a Tesla looking at this monstrosity.
The reason for my chutzpah is Meta stood on a pile of quicksand:
Facebook’s user base and engagement are dwindling, as rich kids move to TikTok, to twerk for China. They are the trendsetters – and have all the time in the world to waste ours.
The company lost the trust of every stakeholder:
- Businesses invested in ‘Pages’ only to watch Facebook make them pay-to-play to be seen.
- Advertisers bid into a black hole, as Facebook and Google allegedly rigged ad prices.
- Creators only recently started getting a share of revenues. As distribution shrank, Facebook inflated video views to keep creators on its plantation.
- Media companies lost millions or went bankrupt as Facebook resisted sharing revenues. Ironically, it told them to pivot to video, as The Almighty Algorithm kept them on Facebook.
- Developers suffered as Facebook crippled apps they deemed a threat. They also limited data and API access to build services.
- Parents weren’t thrilled Facebook hid research that Instagram caused depression in girls.
- Regular users were tracked across thousands of apps. Then, manipulated by ads, foreign trolls, and shady third parties, like Cambridge Analytica.
Pressured to do something about Facebook, politicians rose to the occasion by…grandstanding. Each hearing proved how much worse we could feel, knowing our leaders understood less about technology than pandas. In practice, their attention amounts to harsh regulatory scrutiny. Acquisitions stall, like Facebook’s attempt to buy VR fitness app Supernatural has.
In Europe, things are even worse. Facebook is threatening to pull out of countries with new GDPR privacy restrictions.
Even its core business is under threat. Both Apple and Google crippled Facebook’s ad targeting on mobile with IDFA. It will cost the company billions. Ironically, it’s what Facebook did to those building on its platform. Turns out it too built its castle on someone else’s land. (Read my essential post on Surviving Platform Risk.)
And Oculus, the VR headset Facebook acquired to anchor its Metaverse, loses over $2 billion a year. Plus, extended use causes headaches and chronic virginity.
Yes, Meta is still profitable. It has billions of users and owns household brands. It can afford to buy almost anything — except its reputation. After incinerating so much goodwill, every new battle will be uphill.
At best, ‘Meta’ amounts to a branding exercise, a regulatory head fake, or a fever dream. At worst, it’s an omen that no one’s ever moving into Facebook’s world again.
OUT OF TIME
The second, deeper problem is time.
In a way, Facebook’s promise of the metaverse parallels Uber’s promise of autonomous cars. There’s a good chance neither will be around to fulfill it. Uber’s finances might not last the 20 years needed for self-driving to scale. And Facebook’s predatatory* business model and reputation might not last the 50+ years the metaverse needs.
(*Yes, I just invented a word, Predatator – a data predator for profit)
“Fifty years?? Are you nuts? It’ll happen in five or ten!”
No, it won’t.
If viewed through the lens of gaming, sure, we already have lots of kids shooting aliens in VR. But gaming is a single, narrow, yet lucrative market. It’s entertainment, escapism, recreation. You could argue gamers will be adults who spend more time in VR, especially as graphics and tech improve. Not if they want to support themselves. Or have a family. Or wipe the look of panic and disappointment from their parents’ faces.
No, the ‘real’, adult metaverse demands something more profound — purpose.
Unlike AR, which enhances the physical world, VR demands total immersion. While the cool kids are out ogling and Googling hotties at the club wearing smart contact lenses, VR shut-ins will be knocking over IKEA lamps in studio apartments, strapped to machines.
Scores of adults won’t embrace today’s crude gaming tools any sooner than cardiologists revert to leeches — or football coaches to leather helmets from the 50’s.
To lure adults, you can’t just see and hear the metaverse, you must FEEL it. It must offer the pleasure, validation, and conquest that has drained from the lives of so many. Or, it must offer highs unreachable or unaffordable in the physical world. Or, it must close the gap between our success and our expectations. Yes, the metaverse must become the drug, the sin, and the faith we crave, if it were to materialize.
NEXT BIG LEAP
As I work on a mind-blowing series on this idea, I’ll leave you with one thought: Milestones.
We can measure progress towards the the metaverse in distinct achievements. The next major milestone isn’t better graphics, controllers, or AI. It’s connectivity. Physical connectivity to the cloud. A bridge between our biology and technology, the brain and the cloud, our senses and the digital world. And it must be one our bodies won’t reject, physically or emotionally. Nothing about VR gaming today feels natural. It’s a crime against our biology.
The closest public project in this realm is Elon Musk’s Neuralink. It translates brain signals into data for connected devices — or instructions for impaired limbs. You could ski off a cliff in your teens and still, someday, pilot a Tesla or a SpaceX rocket. There’s an upgrade path here, people. Synergy!!
Even if we solve the science, we must still solve for TRUST.
Who would voluntarily connect their brain to the cloud?? I barely trust connecting to Starbucks WiFi! We’re as far from achieving that trust as we are from the science and utility needed to inspire it.
That’s why Facebook will not be our Metaverse provider. Likely, neither will Neuralink. It might have to be completely open source, owned by no one, maintained by a nerd army on Github. Or maybe, it must be mandated. Today’s China wouldn’t think twice.
Luckily, America would never do such a thing. Buuuut… If you’d like to enter a restaurant, a plane, or your office, you might want to consider Neuralink’s Pangolin 4000 with a free year of Johnson & Norton Antivirus.
Watch this Neuralink demo, while I work on the next edition. If you enjoyed this, please share it with others, subscribe to The McFuture podcast & Newsletter, and support on Patreon for lots of member exclusives.