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27 October 2022

We deserve better than the Metaverse

Our culture is increasingly consumed by the whims of tech billionaires funnelling absurd amounts of cash into projects no one asked for.

By Sarah Manavis

A year ago Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook chief executive, announced that the world’s largest social media company was rebranding. It would now be called Meta, the new name revealing a shift away from one online reality – Facebook itself – in pursuit of another: the Metaverse. Zuckerberg claimed that this virtual world, which users navigate through CGI avatars, would soon compete with our offline one. In the Metaverse, he insisted, people would hang out with friends, build homes and spend money – and most of their lives.

The idea was largely derided at the time. A video of the Metaverse, featuring laughably basic graphics and cringeworthy cameos from Zuckerberg, his wife and Facebook’s vice-president, Nick Clegg, was widely mocked online. The timing of the announcement also triggered widespread scepticism: Facebook was undergoing its worst bout of publicity since the Cambridge Analytica scandal, with the leak of the “Facebook Papers” and many commentators, myself included, saw the rebranding as an obvious attempt to escape negative press.

Twelve months on from this bizarre cultural moment, it seems like Zuckerberg’s commitment to the Metaverse may not have been as superficial as it appeared. In the last week reports have emerged that Zuckerberg is so focused on the metaverse that the rest of the company’s platforms have begun to feel the squeeze. Though Meta has poured a reported $15 billion into the Metaverse (which one senior Meta executive said made him “sick to my stomach”), there are now concerns that not only is the project not as advanced as executives thought it would be but that Zuckerberg’s obsession with it could be the company’s undoing.

Despite a year of apparently obsessive attention and inflated budgets, the Metaverse doesn’t appear to have moved on from its ugly, Sims-esque aesthetic. In August, when Zuckerberg shared a screenshot of his own Metaverse avatar, the image was roundly mocked, with one user describing it as being like a “2002 Nintendo GameCube release”. Just a few weeks ago, Meta’s biggest metaverse app, Horizon Worlds, premiered a video at a tech conference, where it was proudly announced that “legs are coming soon!” to the game’s avatars. (Meta had to mock-up the preview using motion capture because the leg function doesn’t actually work yet).

Despite the amount of money being spent, Horizon Worlds has only managed to gain 200,000 monthly active users – and internal reports showed that most users won’t return after a month of use, according to the Wall Street Journal. With costs for virtual reality headgear rising at the same time as we slide firmly into a global recession and cost-of-living crisis, it doesn’t seem likely that the metaverse will reach a significantly larger audience in the foreseeable future.

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The implications are wider than the success or failure of the pet project of an unimaginative billionaire: the ripple effect of Zuckerberg’s fixation on the Metaverse is being felt throughout the company. Meta’s stock price has fallen by almost 60 per cent since the Metaverse was announced and its last quarterly report (for the second quarter of 2022) showed a drop in revenue for the first time since the company went public in May 2012. Even before these stories about internal turmoil over the Metaverse began to emerge, Zuckerberg himself had announced that the entire company would freeze recruitment and carry out a restructuring, including major cost cutting. The company has warned this may include its first round of lay-offs. Its third-quarter report, which investors are calling “make or break”, is due to be published this week.

Despite all this Zuckerberg pushes on, even to the detriment of the company that made him his name. This situation, where a megalomaniacal tech billionaire reinvests the money earned by his successful enterprises into a futile vanity project, may be an inkling of our future. Will our culture become a graveyard of expensive, financially nonviable technology whether or not anyone else actually wants it?

We can see the beginnings of this phenomenon with other CEOs. There’s little evidence that Jeff Bezos’s jaunts into space are of use to anyone other than Jeff Bezos, and it’s difficult to envisage a future in which he or any other private individual (such as Richard Branson of Virgin Galactic and Elon Musk of SpaceX) manages to bring commercial space flights to the masses. Musk’s obsession with inventions equally appears self-motivated and poorly thought-through: even his most successful project, the self-driving car, is being reported as a technological risk with little chance of widespread use any time soon.

These ego trips are appearing at an increasing rate, and are a depressing reflection of a lack of imagination about how our most financially successful companies and individuals might change the world. Instead of Facebook investing in reducing the spread of disinformation, we have the promise of legs in the Metaverse. We have Bezos in space.

I may look back on this piece in ten years, sitting comfortably in my digital home with an Oculus headset strapped over my eyes, and feel foolish. But whether the metaverse is a financial success or not feels increasingly irrelevant. Either way, it is disheartening to see such wealth and resources funnelled into pointless pet projects. What’s worse is that our culture now barely registers the absurdity of it.

[See also: What is Mastodon, and will it replace Twitter?]

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