As he walked through pristine rooms filled with midcentury modern furnishings at Facebook’s virtual Connect conference on Thursday, Mark Zuckerberg seemed to be a guy who was free of worries.
Whistle-blower? What kind of whistle-blower are you talking about? Is Facebook experiencing a cascading, years-long trust crisis that has regulators raging, workers quitting, and legislators comparing the company to Big Tobacco? Hmm, it doesn’t sound familiar.
Instead, Mr. Zuckerberg and his lieutenants cheerfully laid out their vision for the so-called metaverse, the immersive virtual environment that Facebook — which, as of Thursday, has been renamed Meta, although everyone except a few professionally obligated financial journalists will probably continue to refer to it as Facebook — is attempting to build. Mr. Zuckerberg and his lieutenants said they were excited to be able to share their vision with the public.
As has been the case with most of Facebook’s strategic announcements, the company’s rebranding on Thursday formalised a transition that has been in the works for some years. Currently, the business has more than 10,000 individuals working on augmented and virtual reality projects in its Reality Labs division — about double the number of people who work on Twitter’s whole workforce — and has said that it expects to recruit an additional 10,000 workers in Europe in the near future. Announcing that it will spend around $10 billion on metaverse-related investments this year, the firm has started purchasing virtual reality start-ups in what might be considered a metaverse land grab earlier this week.
There are a variety of problems that may be raised in relation to this metaverse-building technique. There are many questions, the first and most fundamental being: What exactly is a metaverse, and what would Facebook’s version of one look like?
At the very least, the presentation on Thursday provided a partial answer to that issue. According to Mr. Zuckerberg, the metaverse is a clean, well-lit virtual world into which people can enter with virtual and augmented reality hardware at first and more advanced body sensors later on, and in which people can play virtual games, attend virtual concerts, go shopping for virtual goods, collect art, hang out with their virtual avatars, and participate in virtual work meetings.
However, while this vision of an immersive digital realm is not new — it was first sketched out almost 30 years ago by science fiction author Neal Stephenson — Mr. Zuckerberg believes it will become a reality, claiming the metaverse will be the “successor” to the mobile internet, and thus Facebook’s future.
You can also wonder, “Will this work?” which is a logical thing to ask. To be sure, it’s impossible to predict the future, but I’m sceptical that Facebook will succeed in creating an immersive digital universe that people will actually want to spend their time in. After all, the company’s biggest breakthroughs in the past decade have mostly come through acquisitions of competing apps or copying their features rather than developing their own ideas internally.