Facebook’s metaverse shift smacks of desperation

Note: This was originally published as the online newsletter for the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

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 focus attention on the company’s embrace of “the metaverse,” and away from existing products such as Facebook itself, WhatsApp (its messaging service), and Instagram, its photo-sharing app. 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, adding that eventually “I hope we are seen as a metaverse company.”

What isn’t clear, either from Zuckerberg’s comments at the conference or a “founder’s letter” he published announcing the name change, is exactly what it means to be “a metaverse company.” Zuckerberg says the metaverse is “an embodied internet where you’re in the experience, not just looking at it.” In this fabricated world, as he describes it, 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 by 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 in achieving this future is that it would require Meta and other technology companies to not just co-operate 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”).

Some believe that Zuckerberg and other 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,” he said. 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 him), and Meta’s vision 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, since many observers noted that Meta’s announcement about this bright future came right on the heels of a damaging document leak by former 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 exacerbates happen in virtual worlds rather than on a Facebook page? That remains to be seen.

Meta may also be hoping that its new focus helps the company recapture some of its previous dominance, especially with 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. Young users, however, already have plenty of metaverses to choose from: Minecraft, owned by Microsoft, has had 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 like Chipotle have already set up virtual equivalents there; Fortnite, a game that involves a free-form battle in a virtual environment, has also 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.”

Other notable stories:

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.”

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 suits 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 publishers, 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, both male and female, “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.

While China has historically focused primarily on censoring its citizens and expelling foreign correspondents, the government is now also “attempting to shape the information narratives internationally,” reports Raksha Kumar for the Reuters Institute at Oxford. 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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