As longtime readers of my blog know well by now, Auntie Ryan has OPINIONS. And she ain’t afraid to share them! 😉
One such opinion is that everybody and their dog is suddenly wanting to jump on the metaverse bandwagon. I’ve never seen the term thrown around as much as lately.
Another firmly-held opinion: Facebook Inc. has too much influence on virtual reality and the metaverse already. Facebook is a juggernaut, hoping to leverage their existing massive stranglehold on social media (and all its attendant societal ills), not to mention its strip-mining of all the personal data it collects on you (sometimes even without your knowledge or consent; see: the Flo period tracker app), in order to become the dominant player in any market it targets. Witness its recent foray into social audio for just one recent example. Sometimes, it feels like Facebook is just extending itself into every single possible category of product.
Some will respond that Google, Apple, Amazon, and many other firms commit the same level of personal data vacuuming that Facebook does, which is true. However, I actually have more faith that those companies will at least not weaponize their data against me. Few companies have seen the level of public distrust rise as high as Facebook (and frankly, the company’s recent fight with Apple over the latter wanting to make transparent how much data Facebook collects on you, is SO not a good look for Mark Z.).
Time and time again over the years, Facebook has shown that it cannot be trusted (see: the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the incitement of violence in Myanmar, to give just two relatively recent examples of egregious behaviour happening on the platform). Combine that lack of trust with its overweening ambitions, and you have a potentially serious problem.
For me, the absolute final straw came last October, when Facebook announced that owners of Oculus VR headsets had a two-year window to obtain accounts on the Facebook social network for their devices, or potentially lose functionality. (By the way, Facebook has responded to Germany, the only nation I know of so far that has sounded the alarm about forcibly yoking Oculus hardware users to Facebook accounts, by suspending all Oculus sales in that country. As far as I am aware, this is still the case. German consumers can still buy Oculus headsets online from other countries such as France, however.)
I responded by voting with my feet and my wallet, deleting my Facebook and Oculus accounts, and vowing to never again purchase or participate in any Facebook/Oculus hardware and software, a decision which I explain here, and one which I continue to stand by in good conscience. I full well realize that I might be missing out, but I consider the price of admission to be too high (and frankly, too opaque). God knows how my personal data is being used, and Facebook’s track record frankly sucks.
I even went so far as to ask Facebook to delete all the data it had on me, but I also know that the Facebook social network probably has some sort of “shadow account” on me, based on things such as images uploaded to the social network and tagged with my name by friends and family who are still on Facebook. I am going to assume that Facebook has indeed done what I have asked and removed my data from their social network. Frankly, there is no way for me to actually verify this, as consumers in Canada and the U.S. have zero rights over the data companies like Facebook collects about them, as was vividly brought to life by Dr. David Carroll, whose dogged search for answers to how his personal data was misused in the Cambridge Analytica scandal played a focal role in the Netflix documentary The Great Hack (which, by the way, I very strongly recommend you watch).
So, you might be wondering, what do I think of the flurry of recent news stories regarding Facebook’s repositioning to become your next metaverse company, as evidenced by this interview Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg gave to The Verge?
Glad you asked… 😉 Let me tell you…
Facebook earned roughly 86 billion dollars in profit last year, mostly from its data-harvesting/advertising business. It therefore has ample deep pockets to fund an army of public relations staff to curry favour with the news media in order to revise its less-than-rosy corporate history. And no, some people are NOT having it, and pushing back:
(Thank God for the salty counterpoint of Twitter. And yes, I know, Twitter has its problems, too. But at least Twitter gives you better control over what you see in your timeline, including blocking any promoted tweets that happen to irk you.)
So, I therefore take anything that Facebook says with a grain of salt. The news that Facebook has decided to take on the metaverse has already resulted in videos such as this one, by Thrillseeker:
“Biggest VR Announcement of the Decade”? Really? I would beg to differ. (That particular section starts at the 5:13 time mark in the video. There are quite a few other interesting news items which Thrillseeker covers in this video, by the way.)
Here’s a quote from that video:
What’s more shocking is that Facebook says they don’t want to own [the metaverse], they want to help build it, which immediately raises a red flag to me. Facebook has been pretty open about wanting to practically own VR. They’re not just a player in the industry at the moment, they’re essentially an entire team that owns the referee and the field you play on, having more than 60% market share in PCVR and nearly 100% market share in standalone VR.
As I said up top, Facebook’s past corporate history shows that it tends to dominate rather than participate in those markets it enters. Combine that with Facebook’s horrible track record with respect to user privacy and algorithm-driven psychological manipulation, which has contributed to a more divisive society rife with conspiracy theories, misinformation and disinformation, and I share Thrillseeker’s feelings of worry and skepticism at the idea of a Facebook-imprinted metaverse. I don’t trust Facebook.
And in The Verge interview with Mark Zuckerberg, this point was also raised:
Casey Newton: Because I know some people are going to hear this vision for the metaverse and just reflexively wish that you wouldn’t build it. They’ll say, Facebook wasn’t governed effectively when it was in two dimensions, and trying to build it in three dimensions is pure hubris. And people feel that way for different reasons. But one that has come up a lot over the past couple of weeks is misinformation. President Biden has since walked this back, but on Friday he was talking about misinformation related to COVID vaccines. And he said, “Facebook is killing people.” How do you respond to the idea that Facebook has played a role in making people hesitant about getting vaccinated?
Mark Zuckerberg: Well, I think that our basic role here — and I appreciate you mentioning the fullness of the context there, because I do think that the president offered more context on that after his original comment. There’s multiple prongs here. One part of it is we need to basically help push out authoritative information. We do that. We’ve helped, I think it’s more than 2 billion people around the world, access authoritative information about COVID over the course of the pandemic by putting it at the top of Facebook and Instagram. We’ve helped millions of people, including here in the US, basically go use our vaccine finder tool to actually go get their vaccine. So I’m quite confident, just looking at the analytics and the net impact, that we’ve been a positive force here…
And for the metaverse, I think that there are different types of integrity questions. One of the big issues that I think people need to think through is right now there’s a pretty meaningful gender skew, at least in virtual reality, where there’s a lot more men than women. And in some cases that leads to harassment. And I think one of the things that we’ve been able to do better in some of our experiences than some of the other games and things out there is give people easier tools to block people, just be able to have a sense of when there might be harassment going on, to keep it a safe space that can be inclusive for everyone, that everyone wants to be a part of.
Because ultimately, you’re not going to have a healthy and vibrant community if it skews so much towards one gender or the other, or a whole part of the population just doesn’t feel safe. So this stuff is going to be critical. It’s not just critical for having a good social impact, it’s critical for building good products. And it’s something that we’re focused on from the beginning here.
Essentially, Mark resorted to corporate bafflegab in responding to Casey’s question, sidestepping what was at the heart of the question: trust in what Facebook does.
Also, it’s very hard to form an opinion about the Facebook metaverse, based on what little concrete information is publicly available. All we know for now is that Facebook has been doing some internal reorganization, creating a new Metaverse product group:
Facebook Reality Labs is “standing up a Metaverse product group”, but it isn’t clear what this actually means…
The group will be led by former Instagram VP of Product Vishal Shah, and will report directly to [Facebook Reality Labs Vice-President Andrew Bosworth…
But there’s an important question the announcement didn’t answer: what exactly is this “metaverse” group building?
At first glance you might assume the answer is Facebook Horizon. But Horizon is only a part of this group. As the announcement notes, Horizon’s lead will report to Metaverse lead Vishal Shah.
Horizon was marketed alongside Quest 2 and was originally supposed to launch in 2020, but is currently still in a closed beta. Facebook no longer actively markets Horizon, and hasn’t given any specific updates on its progress.
Many observers have been puzzled by the lack of updates on the progress of Facebook Horizon, its much-vaunted third (or fourth, depending on how you count) attempt to launch a social VR platform. It has been much delayed, and people are wondering why. Metaverse blogger Wagner James Au cites an insider in reporting that the project has been beset by staff turnover and a lack of prioritization.
A Reddit thread on the Facebook metaverse announcement included the following pithy comment (a reference to the well-known Ernest Cline novel and Steven Spielberg film Ready Player One):
It’s gonna be the Oasis, but if IOI had owned it from the beginning.
Tim De Chant, writing for the Ars Technica website in a July 28th, 2021 article titled Facebook’s Metaverse Gambit is a Distraction from its Deep-Seated Problems, said:
It’s clear that Zuckerberg has been thinking about this metaverse idea for a while. But the timing of Facebook’s announcement is interesting, to say the least. Facebook has “a history of doing these kinds of technical projects that look like they might be revolutionary at times when they’re being criticized for their lack of social responsibility,” Jen Goldbeck, a computer scientist and professor at the University of Maryland, told Ars.
Facebook has faced its share of scrutiny in recent months. Lawmakers have been floating antitrust and Section 230 bills that would hit the company hard. It was caught earlier this year autogenerating pages for white supremacist groups. And yesterday, hearings began in the House of Representatives into the insurrection that breached the US Capitol in January, which was partially organized using Facebook apps and sites.
It’s probably an overstatement to say that the metaverse news was released to serve as an intentional distraction from the company’s current problems. But the thought undoubtedly crossed someone’s mind at the company. There’s a “70 percent” chance that Facebook’s metaverse project is a “distraction from all the bad things that are going on,” Goldbeck said. “The last thing they want is more discussion of their algorithms and Q-Anon and extremist groups.”
Meanwhile, Paul Tassi of Forbes weighed in as follows, in article published yesterday titled Mark Zuckerberg Is Building the Wrong Metaverse:
…I think it’s easy, and wise, to be skeptical of Zuckerberg and Facebook being the ones to pioneer the Metaverse, given the company’s history. Oculus has already run afoul of its users by experimenting with in-game, in-headset ads (literally the thing the villain of Ready Player One was trying to engineer), but past that, the entire point of the Metaverse runs contrary to what Zuckerberg seems like he’s trying to build. Facebook products, whether Facebook itself or Instagram, are about a digital presence for your real self, or at least a happier, filtered version of yourself. A main ideal of the Metaverse is about not being who you really are, and the ability to be anyone at all. Facebook won’t even let you use a fake name, and is busy harvesting all your personal data that it shares far and wide with advertisers all over the planet. A core tenet of the Metaverse is the ability to hide your true identity and retain all the privacy you could ask for. It’s the exact opposite of the entire history of Facebook.
Zuckerberg talks about sitting on his friend’s couch as a hologram like that’s some sort of pinnacle Metaverse experience. It’s cool tech, it is not the Metaverse, and I think he’s missing the point of the entire concept, along with why people actually want this thing built in the first place. I do not want to sit on my friend’s couch as a hologram. I want to attend a virtual Ariana Grande concert as Batman.
I myself wrote an editorial in January 2020 about many of the same concerns as Paul regarding personal identity here: Will Facebook Horizon Succeed If You Can’t Be Anybody But Yourself?
As the ancient Chinese curse says, may you live in interesting times. And what Facebook is doing is…interesting.
I will continue to wait and watch (and editorialize!) from the sidelines.