Facebook’s vision of the metaverse has a critical flaw

SEP 12, 2021

The “metaverse” is back in the headlines. Mark Zuckerberg recently announced that Facebook “will effectively transition from … being a social media company to being a metaverse company.” Facebook plans to create “an embodied internet” — powered by its Oculus headsets and bridging the company’s platforms in virtual space. And Facebook is not alone, as Epic Games, Disney, and other corporations are also investing billions in their virtual worlds.

Is this metaverse talk exciting? Sure. Is this new? Hardly.

The term metaverse is nearly 40 years old. Coined by sci-fi author Neal Stephenson in his 1992 novel Snow Crash, the metaverse was his name for the convergence of physical reality and virtual space. The idea was a persistent, shared environment that blurred the digital and physical for everyone who entered it. This concept is just as enticing today as it was back in 1992, but why are big players in gaming and technology rediscovering the metaverse today?

The generational shift driving big tech to the metaverse

My son just turned 11, and among his presents was a small cash gift from his grandfather. Since he was free to burn this birthday money on anything he wanted, I couldn’t wait to see what he’d buy. So imagine my reaction when he decided to purchase new skins for his Call of Duty avatar. Pixels rendered on a screen? Seriously? I gently asked if he was sure he wanted to buy something digital that couldn’t be removed from the PC. Without hesitation, he responded “Yes!” And once he’d bought and added his new skins for the game, he wanted to show it off to me, his mom, his siblings … and of course, everyone he played with online.

I tell this story to illustrate the generational shift driving Big Tech’s rediscovery of the metaverse: Younger people are more than willing to pay real money for entirely virtual items. And it’s not just kids and teenagers — the explosion of interest in Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs) represents the grown-up version of unique virtual goods having real cash value. While NFTs can be essentially anything digital, they’re usually digital art or memorabilia like Jack Dorsey’s first tweet (which sold for $3 million).

So why are all these digital goods worth actual money to their buyers? The same reason my son wanted to show off his shiny new pixels to everyone who would listen: The value of digital goods comes from as many people as possible seeing that you have them. Put in terms my older generation could understand, you don’t buy a Ferrari because you need to get places fast. You buy a Ferrari because it looks amazing and you want to look amazing in it. Without a crowd of gawking onlookers, it’s just a fast (and costly!) car, not the status symbol it is meant to be.

What Facebook doesn’t understand about the metaverse

The growing real-world value of digital items helps explain why the metaverse is back in vogue, but we must remember the foundation of value for these digital items is social. Without a large audience to gaze upon your avatar skins or NFTs, these items are just unseen pixels on a screen. And to maximize the audience for digital goods, the metaverse must be open and cross-platform. Otherwise, these digital goods are like a Ferrari buried under junk in your garage.

This need for an open, cross-platform experience is why Facebook’s metaverse initiatives will fail. Everything Facebook does is inside a closed experience controlled by their engineers and admins. Even if you want to use your Oculus headset to access a third-party virtual reality app, you must sign in with a Facebook account. I understand why the company does this, as its lifeblood is unfettered access to user data. Zuckerberg probably sees this metaverse expansion as a way to more fully immerse his userbase into Facebook and get even more data and dollars from them.

However, Facebook’s ethos of top-down control is the exact opposite of what a thriving metaverse needs. Imagine the reactions of people like my son who want to show off new skins for their metaverse avatars, only to discover their friends outside Facebook can’t see them and they’d only get responses from Facebook’s custom-built echo chamber. It’s safe to assume from Facebook’s history that the company will always prioritize a tightly controlled environment over an open metaverse. In short, do we really want a metaverse owned by Facebook — or anyone?

Imagining a better metaverse

I don’t write this to join the online pile-on criticizing Facebook’s metaverse vision but because I’m legitimately excited by the potential of metaverse technology. My company has a ton of customers creating VR and AR applications. I’ve seen firsthand how engaging it can be to layer a heads-up display on a HoloLens for engineering work or to add AR targets to run over during an electric scooter ride. I’ve also seen how sad and isolating an empty virtual world can be when there’s no one in it besides internal testers.

As we imagine a better metaverse, here are three core principles it must have:

  • The metaverse is open, not closed. The more our digital worlds are cross-platform and inclusive to everyone interested in experiencing them, the richer and more engaging they will be.
  • The metaverse is an expansion of the physical world, not a retreat from it. While I enjoyed the movie “Ready Player One,” there’s much more promise in a metaverse that layers new meaning onto our shared physical existence than one that encourages us to play VR games inside a dark, enclosed room.
  • The metaverse should connect people, not divide them. For an open and inclusive platform to work, it needs a strong community that draws people in and welcomes them — while actively resisting trolls and other bad actors trying to stir up dissension.

As younger generations embrace a more digital world and drive investment in the metaverse, I don’t want to be a skeptical old guy who misses out on the fun. Instead, I want companies like mine to take seriously their responsibility to make this new world the best it can be. Instead of only building a metaverse we can control and profit from, let’s make one that’s better than the world we have now — open, expansive, and connective.

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