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Meta is having a midlife crisis, and Zuckerberg’s stale vision is to blame

The problems plaguing Meta’s metaverse aren’t new—only now they’ve cost 11,000 people their jobs.

Meta is having a midlife crisis, and Zuckerberg’s stale vision is to blame
[Source photo: Chesnot/Getty Images]

The news out of Meta couldn’t get much worse, with hundreds of billions in value already lost this year followed by the announcement of massive layoffs at the company. Despite deep pockets and unfathomable reach, there suddenly seems to be little hope for Meta’s future right at the very moment that Mark Zuckerberg needs us to believe in the technology that he claims is his company’s (and our) future.

It’s not a stretch to say that Zuck’s stale vision for the metaverse is at least partially to blame here. As someone who began studying and designing user behavior in virtual worlds more than 25 years ago, to me the news that Meta’s vision is on the rocks is actually quite familiar and expected. In fact, despite the incredible advances in computing power and the overwhelming shift in our digital lives since that time, the challenges that Meta is facing aren’t anything new.

Back in 1995, I joined a small Skunk Works team at Microsoft Research led by Apple vet Linda Stone, to figure out if there was a there there in the early 3D multiperson chat environments that were later popularized by Second Life, and now Horizon Worlds. I spent a few months hanging out in the proto worlds that emerged online in the ’90s trying to understand what people were doing and why at least some of them kept coming back. I later worked with a team of designers and engineers to translate these insights into the rules that would govern Microsoft’s initial offerings in the space (V-ChatComic Chat, and V-Worlds) as well as the tools for creating and customizing digital avatars.

Our team didn’t have Zuck’s—or even Bill Gates’s—billions to play with. We were more of a curiosity than a priority for Microsoft. Yet the challenges we faced have proved remarkably durable and oddly prescient as we take stock of the current state of the metaverse and the billions being spent by Meta ($3.7 billion in the last quarter alone) to prop it up in the hopes that, at some point, we will all decide to show up to the party. I learned a lot in those early years, and many of the lessons feel particularly relevant today as companies like Meta try to harness the potential of the metaverse amid dramatic shifts in our digital lives.

THE METAVERSE IS SOCIAL NOT SPATIAL

The team I joined was led by Lili Cheng and James Mahoney, who were both trained as architects. We had a lot of fun imagining different conceptual models for the worlds we intended to create. The possibilities seemed endless, and endlessly fun to imagine in ways not unlike the worlds that many kids create (and then abandon) in Minecraft today. As a visual person, I bought into the idea that the magical architecture of these virtual worlds would be a critical ingredient in the user experience—possibly the critical ingredient. Why else would you create a 3D environment for people to hang out in?

Yet when I started to spend time with the people who actually frequented these virtual environments, I found that these “stage sets” did not play a particularly critical role in shaping user behavior. At that time these environments were pretty crude, but users didn’t really seem to care. Many gathering spaces were empty or  abandoned, while others were teeming with people. The architecture of the space seemed oddly irrelevant to the interactions—not doing much beyond serving as a conversation starter (“let’s meet over at the weird buddhist temple . . .” ). The spaces were a helpful signal, like conference room names, but you had to work your way into the social structure to figure out where and when things were happening. Without those social queues you could log in and wander around for hours without encountering any real sense of life.

My experience suggests that there will always be a fundamental imbalance between the joy and delight that developers experience when creating these worlds, and the relatively pedestrian experiences we have when navigating around them. Perhaps advances in computing will cross some sort of threshold (like James Cameron’s Avatar) when these virtual spaces achieve a sense of beauty and awe that might be transformational to the user experience. But there will always be a cold state problem, which is amplified by the limitless boundaries of a virtual 3D environment. It takes a lot of people for these environments to not feel empty.

Facebook conquered social media, so it seems odd that it would be blind to this fundamental truth of life online, whether in the metaverse or not. Imagine having to zoom around Horizon Worlds to catch up with all your friends when those updates are much more effectively delivered to your phone as a simple list in your timeline or story?

I realize, at this point, that it is easy to look to gaming as a counterfactual. But games, particularly first-person shooter games, are designed precisely to take advantage of these same limitations. They are places to hunt and be hunted, so the emptiness creates suspense and tension. They also move at hyperspeed, so the physical spaces need to do little more than serve as a rotating backdrop as we race by, like the view from a speeding train.

THE FRINGE TRIES TO GO MAINSTREAM

The ambition of Meta, as well as its predecessors like Second Life, is comprehensive and consuming like social media itself—a persistent, multiuser world that we inhabit continually alongside the physical one. If Meta is right, in the near future we will live our lives with one foot in the physical world and the other in the metaverse at all times, moving fluidly between them whether to engage with work, education, or our friends and family. While gaming, and other immersive VR experiences, will likely mature into quite lucrative markets, they are not Facebook scale. We don’t fully inhabit them the way so many people do with social media today.

The proto virtual worlds I participated in back in the ’90s showed some promise in this regard as they were designed to be open, playful social environments with few rules. But it goes without saying that these early platforms were anything but mainstream. They were not easy to find or set up, so they attracted fringe groups, refugees from text-based MUDs, MOOs, and other Dungeon & Dragons-inspired storytelling platforms. It was much more like a renaissance fair than an Equinox gym.

Persistence was a critical part of the experience as people assumed and traded different identities in the form of virtual garb. While this social behavior was emergent and not dictated by the platforms, the designers seeded the environment with a strong dose of fantasy, and the in-world economy with an element of scarcity, which meant that certain costumes and props conveyed social status as harder-to-come-by digital goods. This virtual theater did more than just entertain; it served a fundamental purpose to distinguish the experience from the physical world—not to re-create it virtually.

This theater also served a very practical design purpose: It took the burden of realism and fidelity off the platform. You know how much more expressive animals are than people in Pixar movies? In a virtual environment it is both attractive and practical to give in to the more fantastic element. There are pretty fundamental computer processing limitations when attempting to render high-fidelity polygons when you have no idea who or what the user might encounter next. Without the artful use of fantasy, you are left with a world filled with redheaded Ken dolls like Meta-Mark, whose legs have been sacrificed to buy precious processing cycles.

Yet Meta seems to be taking precisely the wrong message from the hazing of Meta-Mark, instead doubling down on higher-fidelity android dolls rather than unleashing users’ imaginations. It’s starting to feel like the metaverse is designed for a bunch of sculpted tech bros trying to escape the complexities of our gender- and sexual-identity-diverse world, rather than an environment in which those complexities can take on even more diverse, playful, and expressive forms.

THE PAINFUL LESSONS OF MOBILE

Meta’s stock has dropped more than 75% (approximately $800 billion in lost value) over the last year, causing many people to question Zuckerberg’s judgment as the controlling shareholder. I would trace his thinking around the metaverse decision back to 2012, when Facebook was at a critical inflection point as a desktop web platform with a very limited HTML 5 browser-based mobile offering. At the time, the leadership team was late to recognize the smartphone revolution and didn’t shift their emphasis to a mobile-first product offering in time. By pursuing the metaverse, Zuckerberg is in many ways trying to make sure that Meta is in a lead role in defining the next paradigm, rather than playing catchup again.

But in doing so, Meta seems to have forgotten the most fundamental lesson of mobile computing: The computing experience that is with you all the time wins (even if it is the least immersive). It doesn’t matter that it is delivered to a small screen and consumed in 15-second nibbles. Computing that accompanies us in the world will always trump computing that takes us out of the world, particularly as a medium for continuous social interaction.

Google Glass demonstrated early on that strange-looking headgear has little place “in the wild” of real social encounters. Let’s hope Meta is not betting the farm on a future in which we are all walking around in goofy goggles, bumping into each other as we seek to simultaneously navigate the real world and a meta one. I am not suggesting that we will never do these things in the future. I believe that VR experiences will become more and more delightful as a medium for both art and storytelling, but they will not sit at the center of our digital lives, precisely because they will not easily accompany us out into the world. The convenience of a mobile user experience is a very durable advantage. Any future computing paradigm will need to build on, not replace, the mobile-first world that Facebook ended up conquering so successfully.

Science fiction is full of descriptions of exactly this sort of future, in which people spend the bulk of their time plugged into massive, immersive VR worlds. So is Zuckerberg’s vision of the metaverse prescient or simply a nostalgia trip (like the Marvel Multiverse) for a generation of white men trying to escape an increasingly complex reality? Meta is unlikely to provide demographic data on the 200,000 or so users who currently populate Horizon Worlds (for a CAC of about $60,000 each), but I would bet $800 billion that very few are younger than 20.

Unfortunately for Meta, Zuckerberg’s vision for the metaverse has progressed surprisingly little since the early days of virtual world-building. Setting aside the devastating consequences for the individuals who were just laid off while Zuckerberg indulges his escapist empire building (including their entire Responsible Technology Team), it is a real tragedy to see so many resources spent with so much ego and so little imagination. Let’s hope there is a smart, nonbinary college student in a dorm somewhere with the vision and determination to invent a more compelling digital world for us all to inhabit together someday soon.

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