Meta has ascended to memehood, and the Metaverse officially sucks, but not for the obvious reasons. And the reality is far more dystopian than you might think.
What once was Facebook, now oddly rebranded to a word that describes nothing in particular, wants you to get online and get social, but this time… VIRTUAL. They even stripped the once cool-sounding “Oculus” of its name.
I haven’t “explored” the metaverse as of yet (no meta headset and no extra 1,500 dollars to buy one, and if I did have the money, there are better things), but early reports are that it sucks. Zuck and company spent billions to recreate Nintendo’s Miiverse, but with a brick attached to your face that steadily gets hotter as you use it. Somehow the company that made Social media both ubiquitous and mandatory created a social experience that is unappealing, unpopular, and easily avoided.
Most of the discourse surrounding the Metaverse focuses on the particulars of using it: the limitations of VR, the ugly avatars, the boring environments, and the fact that it’s an environment looking for problems to solve. It’s awkward to use, and strangely dysfunctional, with most people attempting to use it doing so only for a brief bit of novelty. The marketing for Meta’s hardware is frankly silly, showing the user what they look like while using VR (a dork) while showing nothing of what it feels like to use it. As a gaming technology, it’s already in a good state and very functional. It’s not that VR sucks, it’s that Meta sucks.
The real problem the Metaverse has is deep down in the roots of its idea: the virtual environment created by their company is not an escape.
People actually love the idea of a metaverse, but not THE metaverse for this fundamental reason. If you want to know why World of Warcraft and other MMOs like Everquest took off in the early 2000s, it was because they, along with the whole internet, offered people an escape from the oppressive social space of the real world. The internet offered people a place where they could be themselves in a way that wasn’t tenable in the modern, hyper-sensitive culture that surrounds us. The attitude of the wild-west of the internet is now preserved only in anonymous message boards like 4chan, where people will say what they think without fearing any social repercussions for doing so.
The internet was more than that, though. WoW as a metaverse is appealing for more reasons than the freedom to say what you want behind a virtual avatar. It offered a new, interesting world to explore, new friends to find, and even purpose surrounding building the relationships required to overcome the various challenges the designers put in the game. In short, it offered a second life from top to bottom: economies, friendships, professions, clubs, and personal achievement and expression.
Facebook inverted this. Rather than the internet being an escape from the people and places of everyday life, it made everyday life inescapable. You no longer just had to watch what you said at work and school, you had to watch what you said everywhere, all the time. Everywhere you went and everything you did became public knowledge, and permanently searchable. Family and colleagues jettisoned the limited experiences of real-life social time for the bland, hyperactive, inescapable presence of Facebook everywhere and part of everything. I’d love to quit the site completely (it hasn’t functioned properly in more than a decade), but there are family members and friends that would simply never speak to me otherwise.
The internet is just real life, but worse. Meta is of course a further extension of this. Rather than the hideous social media experience being limited to your phone, it becomes a surreal overwhelming experience but with nothing interesting to give you in exchange. It’s running around Ironforge but without a game to give you a reason to be there. Why would I strap a brick to my face to then stand around in a boring environment, watching the same boring things from my real life, looking at people who are far less interesting than my real life, and watching what I say and do to an even greater extent than in my real life? I would only do it if, like Facebook, it was mandatory.
That’s the other failing of the newly branded Meta corp: their real economic power was always in dominance, not quality. At least, it hasn’t been about quality since at least 2011. Facebook has spent at least a decade milking its installed user base rather than offering them more value. People hopped on the platform in 2008 because it gave them something they wanted; they stay because they can’t avoid it.
The Meta Quest II headset is $399, and the new pro headset is $1,499. That’s a steep investment for a device with limited utility. Having used the Quest II, I can say it’s a very well-designed piece of technology. You can use virtual workspaces, you can watch virtual movies, and you can play (scaled-down) games. A smartphone, however, was a phone first, with a large number of other uses besides. It was a small computer. The Quest is, too, but use is nowhere near as fluid as a phone. People didn’t buy a smartphone to use Facebook; Facebook just became a standard app on a device that already had very high utility. And as far as VR headsets go, while the Quest is good, it’s not as good as the purpose-built gaming devices produced by Valve, Sony, and HTC – those attractive to enthusiasts. The Quest II is an “entry-level” device, and the Quest Pro is very interesting but inferior to cheaper gaming alternatives that utilize the power of a desktop computer. Meta has dropped $36 billion dollars, six times the value of Square Enix, to create these things, and their killer app is ugly chat software.
So, circling back around, do I think Meta will fail at the Metaverse?
The answer is no.
The reason is Facebook itself – it’s mandatory. You have to use it to advertise; you have to use it to keep up with friends; you have to use it to log into a bunch of sites, or use third-party apps. It doesn’t matter that your timeline has been useless for the core purpose of the platform for ten years because there is no alternative that also has your friends and family on it. Contrary to current popular opinion, I don’t think Mark Zuckerberg is stupid or “just got lucky” with Facebook. Meta will find ways to make the Metaverse mandatory.
I think the main avenue will be your work, not your personal life. You won’t be sucked into the Metaverse because it gives you something you want. You won’t begrudgingly join because all your friends are on it, and you don’t want to miss out. You’ll be in the Metaverse because a job (or school) will require you to be in it.
The pandemic revealed many things, and high on the list is the realization that corporate workers don’t enjoy being in the office, they don’t actually need to be in the office to do their work, and along with that, that most corporate work time is wasted. The classic work arrangement is much more about controlling the worker than it is about productivity. You can write emails and enter data from anywhere, but how does the corp know they are getting eight hours of work out of you? How can they make sure you are properly afraid of being fired, of losing your insurance and paycheck, so as to keep giving the company your time and effort? How can the company be sure that you won’t just up and quit your job and leave them in the lurch? The stated productivity goal is secondary to maximizing the asset that is the worker.
Most meetings could be an email – but how do you make sure the employee reads it, hears it, internalizes it? How do you ensure they are “part of the team” both physically and mentally?
Enter the Metaverse and the Meta Quest. No need for workers to commute to an office; now they can virtually commute to a virtual office. The brick strapped to your face tracks your expression and even your eye movements.
“You’re not looking at the slide number 6026961! Please pay attention!”
“6026961, you’re face indicates you are bored. Do you need to be put on probation again? Remember that your insurance premium is only paid as part of your Christmas bonus.”
“Do you have some sort of problem, 6026961? You seem to be feeling anxious or irritated. Perhaps I should go over the slide on the number of inclusive gender labels again. Remember, you’ll be tested on this.”
“We’re meeting in the virtual comedy club for drinks after work. You should join us. It’ll add to your team points for the quarter.” (*proceed to fake laugh for an hour at a leftist comedian so as not offend anyone*)
It’s a slam dunk for corps, who could only dream of having this level of control over their workers. The $1500 price tag for a consumer toy might be a non-starter, but as a tax-deductible mandatory piece of commuting equipment, or just a company investment? It’s nothing compared to the cost of labor. I expect tech companies to jump on the bandwagon quickly and for there to be a domino effect once the technology is ubiquitous there.
And consider the advertising potential. You’ll be able to tell in real-time who looks at an ad and when, how well they convert and how much each glance is worth. It’s Facebook on steroids. The potential is insane, and Zuck knows it.
Keep in mind that this is not how Meta will market the Metaverse. Rather, they’ll promote the things companies might want to do with it, such as have meetings where you can’t just zone out and read web comics, or create virtual work environments where people are able to collaborate, not just run through separate, unrelated tasks. How can we get workers to commute less for the good of the environment? What if you just didn’t have to do your two hours of commuting a day as an employee? What would you do with your extra time? How can we get workers in different branches to collaborate on mutual projects?
These are problems companies (and workers) are looking to solve in the post-pandemic world. A $1500 headset could save that much in gas per year (especially now), or stop a worker from having to purchase a new vehicle. Outfitting your 50-person department with headsets is only $75,000. That’s not all that much, especially if it can give you the equivalent of an extra employee or two in productivity every year through facilitating work (and relentless monitoring of every movement and biological activity of every worker).
Once a large number of corporate players adopt the metaverse as a virtual workspace, then it will be like Facebook all over again, but in the business world. It will be difficult and costly to opt out entirely. You’ll need access to the advertising power, and you’ll need your employees to be able to communicate with other companies’ employees in the fluid virtual environment they use. You’ll need to attend customer meeting in the Metaverse. You’ll need the metaverse to find qualified employees who prefer not to move to your physical location.
People thought Nassim Taleb was ridiculous to call employees “slaves,” but when you look at the future, is it really so extreme?
This is what the Zuck is banking on, and I believe he knows what he’s doing. To be fair, there are good things about a Metaverse-like work environment, the main one being that a worker can live in the community he chooses and work for who he chooses. It can save money for a worker, and the most precious commodity: time. But what are you giving up? Something fairly essential, which is your self while you use the device. The workplace is already a location of extreme self-reservation where virtually none of your thoughts can be spoken aloud, and with the Metaverse, it will be ten times more oppressive since even your eyes will betray you. But it still might be the time to buy Meta stock.
Check out my new book of Gen Y fiction about the last generation to grow up without a ubiquitous internet.