Now Zuckerberg wants Facebook to be master of the virtual universe | Alex Hern

Brace yourselves: Mark Zuckerberg has a new pivot for Facebook. The visionary genius who brought us the pivot to video, the pivot to privacy, the pivot to trusted news and the pivot away from trusted news is now preparing for the latest turn: the pivot to the “metaverse”.

“The metaverse is a vision that spans many companies – the whole industry,” Zuckerberg told tech news site the Verge in an interview last month. “My hope, if we do this well, I think over the next five years or so, in this next chapter of our company, I think we will effectively transition from people seeing us as primarily being a social media company to being a metaverse company.”

Yes, it’s buzzword time. A metaverse – or virtual reality shared space – is the hot new concept in the tech sector, the latest thing that we are promised will be lifted from science fiction to reality. Imagine the virtual worlds of Ready Player One, Neuromancer or The Matrix and you’re halfway there. But as well as simple virtual reality, most visions of the metaverse have an eye on the creativity and commerce it enables, on seeing a place where you can commission an avatar from one digital artisan, a custom voice from a second and use them both to play in a game made by a third.

Zuckerberg has never been one to acknowledge when he’s changed his mind, but the pivot to the metaverse seems particularly ill at ease with the other major change that Facebook is pushing through. This is the encryption of all direct messages between its users and those of Instagram and WhatsApp and is part of the pivot to privacy announced in 2019.

I don’t want to accuse the fantastically successful founder, who singlehandedly holds almost 2% of all US millennial wealth, of glib thinking. And indeed, his vision of what a notional future Facebook might look like is impressively detailed. But I’m starting to tire of the fact that the tech sector periodically pauses to mull over the deep strategy behind Zuck’s latest brain farts as though they are anything more than repeated panicky attempts to enter and destroy whatever sector of the industry looks like it might pose a problem for his company in the future.

That’s not to say the concept of a metaverse is hollow. The term dates back to the 1992 Neal Stephenson novel Snow Crash, a book Zuckerberg has liked for long enough that he once assigned it as required reading for underlings. Alarmingly, he seems to have overlooked the fact that the world it describes, of a hypercapitalist, libertarian future America and a virtual reality proto-internet, is an arch dystopia.

Even so, in the years since, many have tried to create such a metaverse. Perhaps the most famous is Second Life, an online virtual space where users could create avatars, buy land, build houses and, obviously, engage in oodles of cybersex. The service and Linden Labs, the company behind it, briefly experienced the 00s equivalent of the bitcoin boom, when the price of virtual land in Second Life’s community spaces soared.

But though diehard users stuck around for years, Second Life ultimately dwindled, because of the problem all networked virtual worlds have: the internet already exists. In the world of Snow Crash, it doesn’t and the metaverse fulfils those needs. Long-distance communication, shopping, entertainment, are all done by hopping into a virtual world and moving about. But in our real world, the virtual layer adds a lot of fuss, with little extra capability.

That’s not to say there haven’t been more successful attempts to do the same thing. But their home has been gaming, where Roblox and Fortnite are each attempting to build a metaverse for the 2020s. The goals are necessarily narrower than those of Zuckerberg: less “a single virtual space for anyone to do anything” and more “a place where Ariana Grande can hold a concert with Master Chief from Halo in the crowd”. But some of the basics are there, just as they were with Second Life. Users can build items in the world of Roblox and sell them to others and they can make whole sub-games that have their own rules, art and even physics.

It doesn’t feel like Zuckerberg is looking to video games for his inspiration, though. Instead, the recent buzz around the metaverse is because it has been repurposed as a way to justify the millions of dollars spent on NFTs (non-fungible tokens) in the past six months.

The thinking is simple. You own an NFT artwork, but what can you do with it? In the real world, not much: you could buy a video screen and display it in your house, but that doesn’t really interact much with the lovely NFTness of the whole thing. Why wouldn’t you have just bought a print, if all you wanted to do is hang it a wall? But in a virtual world, suddenly it makes more sense. You obviously can’t hang a physical object in a digital house. But what if you want a virtual item that still has some of the desirable rarity of a physical one? Well, then NFTs are perfect.

I’m now the one being glib. Perhaps the most fleshed-out example of how the metaverse would work comes from venture fund capitalist Matthew Ball. But it’s also, to my eyes, a vision that Zuckerberg could never achieve. A metaverse, Ball writes, must “offer unprecedented interoperability of data, digital items/assets, content and so on”. He contrasts that with the digital world of today, where you can’t, for instance, buy a song on the iTunes store and upload it to Call of Duty so you can have it blasting from your Jeep as you drive across Verdansk. Nor can you pick up a virtual outfit from H&M and dress avatars in it in Fortnite.

Such a metaverse would be perfect for Facebook, provided the “unprecedented interoperability” happens by ensuring that every single service under the sun becomes part of the house of Zuck. Until that happens, though, we’re stuck with the watered-down ambitions of a man who bought the virtual reality company Oculus Rift for $2bn in 2014 and has never really worked out what to do with it.

What I’ve been reading

Green dream
A Psalm for the Wild-Built, the latest novella by Becky Chambers is a quiet, cosy introduction to a “solarpunk” world: a sustainable futurism of e-bikes, biodegradable buildings and planet-scale wilderness.

Type cast
An enjoyable Economist piece, How Europe’s Proverbial Voters Explain a Continent, charts the various national equivalents of “Mondeo man” in Europe, from Germany’s Swabian housewife to Ireland’s breakfast roll man.

Digital backwaters
What happens if you give the same metaverse tools to a phenomenally talented digital artist? You get Everest Pipkin’s fantastic study of abandoned worlds in Roblox.


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