Until Thursday, most people had no idea what the metaverse was. For that matter, most of the 7.9 billion people in the world still don’t.
So, first an explanation: The “metaverse,” as coined by science fiction writer Neal Stephenson in his 1992 novel “Snow Crash,” is a seamless blending of virtual and physical reality. For 30 years, his vision has been a fantasy.
Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder and chief executive, thinks it’s coming — and quickly. He may be right. But I doubt it will come from him.
In 2014, Facebook paid $2 billion to acquire Oculus, a pioneer in virtual reality headsets. In a presentation that lasted nearly an hour and a half, Zuckerberg announced last week that Facebook’s parent company was changing its name to Meta to emphasize a new focus on bringing the metaverse to (virtual) life.
Now, we all suddenly have questions about the metaverse, such as: Can virtual spaces really substitute for physical community? And: Is Mark Zuckerberg going to become the evil overlord of everything?
The former question is above my pay grade. As for the second: As I say, I doubt it.
Sure, Zuckerberg is an entrepreneurial genius who founded one of the earliest, and by far the most successful, social media companies. Billions of people use Facebook and Instagram every month, and together with Google and Amazon, Facebook dominates the digital ad market. This produces a lot of cash to invest in the metaverse. The company has promised to drop $10 billion this year on Facebook Reality Labs to develop hardware, software and content.
Yet consider that for all the panic about Facebook’s monopoly power, it increasingly looks like a company at or near its peak. Forget the Russian conspiracy theories and the document leaks; Facebook’s biggest problem is that it has been struggling with younger users for years, and now Instagram appears to be losing its youthful luster as well. If Facebook doesn’t find some way to get the youths on board, it will eventually begin to shrink. Because the value of a social media service lies in the connections it makes to other users, a collapsing user base tends to be self-accelerating. With each decline, the network becomes less valuable to remaining users.
Zuckerberg has at least avoided one mistake frequently made by companies facing disruption: refusing to sacrifice short-term profitability of the legacy business to adapt to longer-term dangers. But many companies that see the approaching catastrophe and dutifully try to adapt fail to do so.
Kodak invented the digital camera in 1975, and nonetheless went bankrupt in 2012 thanks to digital photography. This story is often told as “complacent incumbent misses the revolution,” but that’s simplistic. Kodak’s 1975 camera was cumbersome and not very useful until ordinary people had computers. When the digital era finally arrived, Kodak invested billions in producing digital cameras and acquired a photo-sharing site called Ofoto.
Unfortunately, Kodak was an also-ran in every new business it entered. Which wasn’t entirely surprising. If you wanted to create a digital photography company, you probably wouldn’t staff it with 145,000 employees of a company that made cameras and film — not even if one of them was a prodigy like Zuckerberg.
There’s a telling moment early in Zuckerberg’s presentation on the metaverse when one of his employees mentions “Arizona Sunshine,” a video game for the Oculus headset. On cue, Zuckerberg says “I love ‘Arizona Sunshine’! That game basically got me and my friends through the first few months of the pandemic.”
Though Zuckerberg’s delivery is wooden, I’d bet the statement was sincere. In it, I heard echoes of Facebook’s creation story — something Zuckerberg and his buddies cooked up in a Harvard dorm room that they wanted to use themselves. Zuckerberg’s particular genius isn’t coding, but wanting what the rest of us would want if we understood what was possible.
But such gifts are limited by one’s environment. When Zuckerberg founded Facebook, he was one 19-year-old college student with a computer, among millions. A decade ago, when he was pushing the company to focus on mobile rather than desktop and buying Instagram for $1 billion, he was a 28-year-old entrepreneur. Now he’s a billionaire, one of only thousands, and he has aged out of the coveted 18- to 34-year-old demographic. His friends have virtual reality headsets so they can play “Arizona Sunshine” together.
Maybe Zuckerberg and his friends have once again grasped the future just a little bit before the rest of us. But it seems more likely that the future belongs to people we’ve never heard of — those without a legacy business to worry about or a thick layer of money and fame insulating them from the longings of ordinary users. That doesn’t mean they’ll be better people, or that we’ll be any happier with their virtual creations than we are with the real world. But it will make for a change.