Facebook’s metaverse shift smacks of desperation

Two weeks ago, Alex Heath of The Verge reported that the company then known as Facebook was planning to rename itself. An anonymous source told Heath that the new name was intended to direct attention away from the company’s existing services (including WhatsApp, Instagram, and the social network itself) and toward its embrace of “the metaverse.” Ten days later at Connect, an annual conference the company hosts for developers, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, said the company would henceforth be known as Meta. The change was necessary “to reflect who we are and what we hope to build,” Zuckerberg said. He added his hope that Meta would eventually be “seen as a metaverse company.”

What Zuckerberg didn’t make clear, in his comments at the conference or in the “founder’s letter” he published announcing the name change, is exactly what it means to be “a metaverse company.” The metaverse, Zuckerberg says, is “an embodied internet where you’re in the experience, not just looking at it.” In this fabricated world he describes, users will be able to do “almost anything you can imagine—get together with friends and family, work, learn, play, shop, create—as well as completely new experiences.” A video presentation shows Zuckerberg walking through a virtual house with a fireplace and a view of the digital mountains, choosing what clothes his avatar should wear with a wave of his hand, fencing with a partner who is located elsewhere, and attending a virtual meeting that includes a large red robot.

In interviews, Zuckerberg elaborated, saying that he sees the metaverse as something like the next iteration of the internet, built by many companies working together. In this vision, Meta’s Oculus headset would be just one window into a virtual universe. One hurdle to achieving this future is that it would require Meta and other technology companies to not only cooperate but also inter-operate—that is, allow their products to work together. As critics have pointed out, the company formerly known as Facebook has a terrible track record when it comes to interoperability, and many other technology giants aren’t much better. (I hosted a discussion on CJR’s Galley platform last year with author and free-speech activist Cory Doctorow about how interoperability can help dismantle “surveillance capitalism.”)

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Some believe that technology companies are interested in the metaverse because they want to recreate or extend their existing dominance into a new realm. Ian Bogost wrote in The Atlantic that the metaverse is “a fantasy of power and control” on the part of technology billionaires: “If only the public could be persuaded to abandon atoms for bits, the material for the symbolic, then people would have to lease virtualized renditions of all the things that haven’t yet been pulled online.” Ethan Zuckerman, cofounder of the Initiative for Digital Infrastructure at the University of Massachusetts, wrote that the current version of the metaverse isn’t much better than those created 30 years ago by early experimenters (including Zuckerman himself). Meta’s vision, he wrote, is about “distracting us from the world it has helped break.”

Zuckerberg may have been thinking about the metaverse as a short-term distraction as well; as many observers have noted, Meta’s announcement came on the heels of a damaging document leak by former Facebook employee turned whistleblower Frances Haugen, which in turn fueled an avalanche of news stories. (Kevin Roose of the New York Times described the metaverse as “Mark Zuckerberg’s escape hatch.”) Much of the coverage of those leaked documents pointed out that the company appears to have routinely ignored evidence from its own researchers about the harm done to users by its services. What steps will Meta take when the harassment, hate speech, and other problems it arguably enables happen in virtual worlds rather than on a Facebook page? That remains to be seen.

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Perhaps Meta hopes that its new focus might help the company recapture some of its previous dominance, especially among younger users. According to internal data, the number of teenage users of Meta in the US has fallen by thirteen percent since 2019, and is expected to drop another forty-five percent in the next two years. Young users, however, already have plenty of metaverses to choose from: Minecraft, owned by Microsoft, has operated a virtual world with hundreds of millions of users since 2011; Roblox, which allows users to create their own games, has 165 million users, and a number of brands, such as Chipotle, have already set up virtual equivalents there; Fortnite, a game that involves a free-form battle in a virtual environment, has hosted music performances and other events. Zuckerberg may have renamed his company Meta to show his love for the concept of the metaverse, but that love may wind up being unrequited.

Here’s more on Meta and the metaverse:

  • Meta-buzzwords: Max Read, a former editor at Gawker and New York magazine who now publishes a newsletter on technology and culture, says the term “metaverse” is “mostly a buzzword used to refer vaguely to a bunch of businesses, platforms, and technologies that might someday work together in some not particularly well-defined way.” The Facebook version of this, he says, involves entering a world where you can “go to VR meetings for your VR job [and] get summoned into a VR conference room to get VR furloughed by your VR boss and a VR human-resources representative.”
  • Meta-racism: Erick Jose Ramirez, an associate professor of philosophy at Santa Clara University, writes about the false hope that technologies like virtual reality will help society deal with racism. “The idea is that technology might help us better understand what it’s like to be someone on the receiving end of racist violence,” Ramirez writes. “Unfortunately, such approaches rely on seriously problematic assumptions about what it means to experience racism (or misogyny or classism or ableism) and often perpetrate the very racism they’re trying to help stop.”
  • Meta-competition: Gene Park, who writes about gaming for the Washington Post, says that most of the things Mark Zuckerberg wants for his version of the metaverse already exist in various online games like Fortnite. While they don’t offer the interoperability required for a true metaverse, “the building blocks and runways had been established years before Zuckerberg publicly announced his intent to turn Facebook into a metaverse company,” Park wrote. “Chinese conglomerate Tencent has been pouring billions into investments into the metaverse for some time now. In this regard, Facebook/Meta is playing catch up.”
  • Meta-journalism: Annia Ciezadlo, an editor for an independent media outlet in Beirut called The Public Source, writes in an opinion piece for Wired magazine that the Facebook Papers need to be released globally, because “the news consortium exposing the company’s worldwide abuses hasn’t included the journalists best equipped to report on them—those in the global south.” Despite the fact that many of Facebook’s worst abuses are taking place in the global south, Ciezadlo writes, “all of the news outlets initially analyzing this unprecedented look inside Facebook’s operations—including Wired—were from North America or Western Europe.”

Other notable stories:

  • Google announced on Wednesday that it is bringing its Google News website back to Spain, after removing the country from its news index in 2014. The search company shut down the Spanish version of Google News following a dispute over a then-new law that would have forced Google to pay news publishers for their content. Spain has now brought its laws into sync with those of the European Union, which The Verge explains will allow the company to cut individual deals with specific publishers, rather than having to pay any site whose news stories appear in Google News.
  • CNN reports that Smartmatic—the voting technology company that is suing Fox News and some of the network’s hosts, as well as Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell, for defamation—has added Newsmax and the One America News Network to the list of defendants. The lawsuits were filed against the two right-leaning TV networks on Wednesday, the anniversary of the 2020 election. “Despite claims to provide viewers with honest, unbiased reporting, these outlets victimized Smartmatic by spreading false information about the company following last year’s election,” a Smartmatic attorney said in a prepared statement, according to CNN.
  • The New York Sun, a daily newspaper that shut down in 2008 after six years of existence, is coming back to life as an online-only publisher, according to a report from the New York Times on Wednesday. “Seth Lipsky, the editor in chief and former owner of The Sun, sold the publication in a cash and stock deal to Dovid Efune, who until recently was the top editor of The Algemeiner, a Jewish-interest print and online publication based in New York,” the paper reported. Lipsky will be the editor of the new version, while Efune will be publisher and chairman.
  • Ariana Pekary, CJR’s public editor for CNN, writes about why web video is more divisive than TV. “Cable outlets like CNN cannot post every show segment online due to restrictions by cable carriers which don’t want content given away for free” she writes. “So at CNN, a team of over 100 people dedicated to digital video select the TV clips they expect will get the most traffic online to boost their ability to sell digital ads on platforms, like YouTube and Facebook. What that means is online you’re likely to get the most polarizing content CNN makes.”
  • More than thirty percent of the female journalists who responded to a survey about abuse and harassment said they feel unsafe doing their jobs in the UK, according to a report from Press Gazette. Eighty percent of all 360 survey respondents “said they had experienced threats, abuse or violence as a result of their work in the UK. This included abuse, intimidation, threats of violence, violence, death threats, bullying, sexism, racism and homophobia.”
  • The New York Times reported on Wednesday that it added 455,000 new digital subscribers in the third quarter, which the newspaper said keeps it on pace to reach its stated goal of 10 million subscribers by 2025. Of the new subscriptions, 320,000 signed up for the news product, while the rest came for Games, Cooking, and Wirecutter, the product review site that started offering subscriptions in September.
  • Writing for the Reuters Institute at Oxford, Raksha Kumar details China’s media strategy, which has historically focused on censoring its citizens and expelling foreign correspondents but is now “attempting to shape the information narratives internationally.”. China regularly conducts exchange programs for foreign reporters and training programs inside the country, she writes, but the government “also uses unusual tactics such as providing state media content free of charge, paying for entire supplements in respected foreign newspapers, and launching bilateral cooperation agreements.”

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Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.

TOP IMAGE: Seen on the screen of a device in Sausalito, Calif., Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announces their new name, Meta, during a virtual event on Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021. Zuckerberg talked up his latest passion -- creating a virtual reality "metaverse" for business, entertainment and meaningful social interactions. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)