When Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced that the company would be rebranding under the moniker “Meta,” the public and the media were quick to point out the barely concealed attempt to detach the company from a slew of bad press. From Cambridge Analytica to the “Facebook Papers,” Zuckerberg’s brand needed a new name and a new public perception. Couple this with the fact that Facebook was actually losing daily active users for the first time and the name change made sense.
What perhaps made less sense was Zuckerberg’s simultaneous announcement of a foray into the world of virtual reality. As The Verge reported, “In the next decade, he thinks most people will be spending time in a fully immersive, 3D version of the internet that spans not just Meta’s hardware such as the Quest, but devices made by others.” Ever since the rebrand, the public has been bombarded with “Metaverse” advertisements, as Zuckerberg and his board do everything they can to draw internet users back into the profit matrix.
While the move into VR was slightly confusing given the continued appeal of Meta’s array of social networking sites, which include Instagram and WhatsApp, the story still made sense. Meta is not just attempting to reconstitute the social domination Facebook had in the 2000s and 2010s, but to usurp an entire industry. And in keeping with past insidious traditions of Facebook, Meta is still working to keep the public under constant surveillance for the benefit of capitalist consumerism.
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As others have reported, the first important thing to know is that the term metaverse was coined in the 1990’s with Neal Stephenson’s novel Snowcrash. It described a “vast, immersive virtual world simultaneously accessible by millions of users,” according to a definition pulled together by Wagner James Au, a VR researcher and author of the upcoming book Why the Metaverse Matters: From Second Life to Meta & Beyond, A Guide by Its First Embedded Journalist. From Fortnite to Roblox, there are a multitude of metaverse platforms, all operating within this world through the use of virtual reality. In short, the metaverse has been around long before Zuckerberg announced his new endeavors.
Earlier this year Meta was sued by another company called METAx LLC for copyright infringement. It seems implausible that Zuckerberg and his lawyers were unaware of this small business that had operated under the name for 12 years, so the conflation of Meta the company and metaverse the concept is almost definitely deliberate. Zuckerberg is taking advantage of the public’s general unawareness of the metaverse and broader virtual reality to further his brand.
“When they changed the name from Facebook to Meta they definitely wanted to co-opt [the term],” Au said.
The good news is that Zuckerberg’s metaverse platform Horizon Worlds is, by most accounts, doing really, really badly. From complaints of horrible rendering to sexual harassment, issues within the platform have turned off many people. Meta spent $15 billion on the platform and no one knows how. And Horizon World’s monthly active users are so low (less than 200,000 as of October) that it does not even chart among the largest metaverse platforms. Horizon Worlds still has a perception issue—not only because it is basically synonymous with Zuckerberg’s face to those who know about it, but also because the much broader majority of people are simply unsure of what it even is.
Facebook’s luck ran out with TikTok, and social media seemed to be slipping away from it.
Facebook’s main pull is the connection people get to their friends and family. Many use it to update their network about their lives, and keep updated in turn. That quality has made it one of the preeminent social media platforms, even today. But given the many missteps Facebook has taken over the years that eventually led to the rebrand, many people have a negative perception of the platform no matter its corporate name.
Combined with that is the typical the cycle of social media, as young people look for the next new thing (see: MySpace). To combat this slow road to irrelevancy, Facebook set a goal of buying up every company that threatened it, or pummeling them into submission. WhatsApp and Instagram got purchased; Snapchat resisted and was hit with Instagram Stories, a copycat product. Facebook even bought an Israeli surveillance app called Onavo to monitor the market for social media and spot emerging new apps, which it would then copy, buy, or kill.
But Facebook’s luck ran out with TikTok, and social media seemed to be slipping away from it. Another acquisition, of Oculus in 2014, was the first step into the metaverse, and a new spin on the old strategy of rolling up an entire industry.
Oculus (now called Quest) is among the top virtual reality hardware companies on the market, selling over 10 million units at a $300 price point. And Meta started buying up the rest of the space too. In a Federal Trade Commission lawsuit blocking Meta from purchasing Within Unlimited, a VR company, it noted that Facebook already owned the leading device (Quest), the leading app store (Quest Store), seven of the industry’s most successful developers, and one of its highest-selling apps (Beat Saber). That lawsuit is still pending.
But despite this attempt to gobble up the industry, and explicitly use the metaverse to replace the internet, what Meta is creating just isn’t appealing. People who are buying Quest hardware are not using the Horizon Worlds platform. Instead, as Au told me, users are logging into popular platforms such as VRChat and Rec Room. Rec Room alone has 5 million monthly active users.
One problem, Au said, is that Horizon Worlds has failed to differentiate itself from the landscape of virtual reality. Part of the definition for the metaverse is its “highly customizable avatars and powerful experience creation tools.” A report from Kotaku says Horizon Worlds is filled with “mostly empty, ‘sad’ worlds.”
“They didn’t get the social aspect right,” Au said. “These are virtual communities and they need to be welcoming. They need to have people you want to hang out with in the experience.”
And Zuckerberg deliberately made his avatar look exactly like him—a highly unusual use of a metaverse platform, Au said. Much of the appeal of the metaverse and virtual reality as a whole is the ability to explore any identity and any world one could desire. Another issue is the push to be another workspace, found in the offshoot Horizon Workrooms.
“For some reason, Meta and some other companies are trying to say, ‘well, let’s recreate the office,’ like a real corporate office, but nobody likes it. People don’t even want to go [in real life] and so why would they want to go virtually?” Au said.
Zuckerberg has placed billions of dollars and all his faith into the future of his metaverse platform. He’s pinned his hopes on the same strategy of crushing rivals and monopolizing the VR space. But the reality is that Facebook’s user base, and the world more generally, is maturing past the need for Zuckerberg’s concepts. Where he was once in touch with what the world wanted and how they wanted to connect, he now thinks an office meeting room will capture people’s imagination. He’s just another boring CEO with boring CEO ideas.