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 . 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.