Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Facebook Announces Its Fantasy Benevolent World to Avoid Its Current Problems

Jason Koebler, Vice:

The future Zuckerberg went on to pitch was a delusional fever dream cribbed most obviously from dystopian science fiction and misleading or outright fabricated virtual reality product pitches from the last decade. In the “metaverse” — an “embodied” internet where we are, basically, inside the computer via a headset or other reality-modifying technology of some sort — rather than hang out with people in real life you could meet up with them as Casper-the-friendly-ghost-style holograms to do historically fun and stimulating activities such as attend concerts or play basketball.

These presentations had the familiar vibe of an overly-ambitious video game reveal. In the concert example, one friend is present in reality while the other is not; the friend joins the concert inexplicably as a blue Force ghost and the pair grab “tickets” to a “metaverse afterparty” in which NFTs are for sale. This theme continued throughout as people wandered seamlessly into virtual fantasy worlds over and over, and the presentation lacked any sense of what this so-called metaverse would look like in practice. It was flagrantly abstract, even metaphorical, showing more the dream of the metaverse than anything resembling reality. We’re told that two real people, filmed with real cameras on real couches, are in a “digital space.” When Zuckerberg reveals that Facebook is working on augmented reality glasses that could make any of this even a remote possibility, it doesn’t show any actual glasses, only “simulated footage” of augmented reality from a first-person perspective.

Facebook — now Meta, but come on — has posted the entire Connect 2021 keynote video and I must say that it is more convincing than this text-based description. The company already has some of this stuff working in Horizon Workrooms, too.

I have been thinking about this proposal as presented, and I keep wondering if it is a realistic look at the future of online work and play. And my conclusion is that it barely matters because it is engaging in the wrong premise. Facebook may be entirely invested in these efforts, but we have not yet come to terms with what the company represents today. It can parade its research projects and renderings all it wants, but the fact of the matter is that it is a company that currently makes the de facto communications infrastructure for much of the world, and frequently does a pretty poor job of it. Is this really the figurehead we want for the future of personal computing? Is this a company that we trust?

Nearly three years ago, Mark Zuckerberg outlined his vision for a “privacy-focused” social networking platform. So far, that has produced a singular result: it is now possible to message people across Facebook’s services. It has become more entrenched as infrastructure, yet this one company still controls it.

Mike Isaac, New York Times:

But evolving Facebook into a metaverse company will take time since the concept is theoretical and may take years to achieve. Facebook and its sister apps also remain a giant business, generating more than $86 billion in annual revenue and serving more than 3.5 billion people globally.

Left unsaid is that Facebook is, revenue-wise, primarily an advertising company. It makes communications software, but it sells ads based on how people use its products, as well as third-party software and websites that have any integrations with Facebook. That is the business it is engaged in. If you are like me, you may be thinking that it is sort of weird that this advertising company thinks it can create the mixed-reality future in software, hardware, and developer tools. What is the business here?

Ben Thompson of Stratechery saw an early preview of the keynote — sans name change — and interviewed Zuckerberg about the company’s new direction.1 Here is what Zuckerberg said about the business model:

I know this is a very different approach that we’re taking than what the mobile platforms today have taken. It’s much more similar to the approach that we’ve taken with our apps, right? Where the apps have been free, our ad auction gives every advertiser the lowest price that we can. For when we build commerce tools, we generally offer them either at no cost or at cost to us. And then the idea is you build as big of an ecosystem as possible, and then some things have to be scarce, right? So, whether that’s people searching for something at an app store or a limited number of ad units and a feed, and then you basically have a markets set the pricing there.

That’s basically the approach that I want us to take in the metaverse too, which is we’re going to build devices and we’re either going to subsidize them or offer them at cost. We’re going to make the app store model, I think, dramatically more open than anything that you’ve seen on mobile today, where we already do side-loading on Quest and we do App Lab and we do Link so you can have stuff running on your PC, and we’ll keep on doing that because I think the choice for consumers is important and for developers, and we’re going to try to make it so that the commerce tools that we build have as low fees as possible.

In short, Facebook will be borrowing a little from the commission-based app marketplace model, and expanding its advertising business. As Thompson writes in his analysis of Meta, this is Facebook seizing the opportunity to build its own platform. It says it is building for interoperability, but Google was a big fan of calling Android an “open source” platform, and we all know how that turned out.

What is all this, anyway? Is this silly or visionary? Remember the “an iPod, a phone, and a breakthrough internet communicator” bit from the Macworld 2007 introduction of the iPhone? The iPod and phone lines received raucous applause; the audience’s response barely registered for the internet part, but it has proved far more transformative. Is this that kind of moment, where it is hard to see how impactful Facebook’s mixed reality initiatives are?

Perhaps it is something you really do have to experience to believe in. The moment that genuinely made me believe in its potential was when a researcher wanted to know where their favourite mug was, and a map of their apartment displayed its location. But this seems like an extraordinary engineering effort to find lost mugs and socks. Meanwhile, in today’s world, smart home stuff still sucks despite the promises of the last many years. Facebook is trying to tell me that this all becomes more manageable when it is synthesized in a metaverse of its creation? I will believe it when I see it.

What this event felt most like is a bit of a dodge — a way to jettison years of scandals, like Largo abandoning the flaming shell of the Disco Volante with the hidden yacht at the end of “Thunderball”. I am not saying that Facebook cannot simultaneously work on this and the long list of problems of its existing platforms, but the whole thing felt like the company was telling people to stop paying attention to the news of the last five years and start focusing on this fantasy of a decade from now.

The metaverse is me making a list of chores to give to the staff of butlers and housekeepers and gardeners I am employing at my large country house I will have in ten years instead of vacuuming my apartment today.


  1. Thompson said there were no restrictions on the interview but he elected to focus on this metaverse stuff. While it is true that asking about Facebook’s current issues would likely be unproductive and result in some canned responses from Zuckerberg, I also think it was a missed opportunity. ↩︎