Hey, remember the metaverse? Last year, when we had nothing better to do but sit around and aggressively consume online content, tech giants were wowing us with visions of a digital future in which we would work, play, and, most importantly, spend in a virtual world.
The cartoonish overlords of Silicon Valley were scrambling over one another to lay claim to this digital future they could see so tantalizingly close on the horizon, however, none of them went as far as suspected-reptilian Mark Zuckerberg. The Facebook founder boldly changed the name of the parent company of Instagram, Whatsapp, and Oculous to ‘Meta’, planting his flag forever on the surface of this digital moon.
People were already reaching hysteria with tech hype when the news landed. NFTs were in their prime, someone spent half a million US to live virtually next to Snoop Dogg, and virtual horse racing syndicates briefly became a thing.
Even last year though, there were rumblings of disquiet. Reports of sexual assault in the metaverse were already emerging, raising issues about online safety and the sheer lack of female insight into the design of these platforms. Practical questions were raised about whether people would even want to sit for hours a day with clunky headgear strapped to their faces. Zuckerberg personally had to reassure his staff, and his audience, that the metaverse was cool, groovy, and a great idea. Early accounts started to pour in about just how, well, dull this future seemed.
Now, the wave well and truly appears to have broken. Billionaire investor and notable crypto-enthusiast Mark Cuban recently said in an interview that buying virtual real estate in the metaverse is “the dumbest shit ever.” Average prices for digital property have dropped 61% from their 2021 peak while a recent Twitter poll by a Bloomberg tech journalist saw fewer than 20% of the 17,000 respondents say they actually wanted a metaverse.
That puts Zuckerberg in a particularly difficult position. Having gone all in on a vision that the public doesn’t really seem to understand or care about is one thing, but losing the faith and support of your employees is another.
The Meta boss appeared “visibly frustrated” in a Q&A with employees last month when asked about the continuation of staff mental health days introduced during the pandemic.
“Realistically, there are probably a bunch of people at the company who shouldn’t be here,” Zuckerberg responded on the June 30 call, according to a recording obtained by The Verge.
“And part of my hope by raising expectations and having more aggressive goals, and just kind of turning up the heat a little bit, is that I think some of you might just say that this place isn’t for you. And that self-selection is okay with me.”
Meta’s share price has been in freefall since announcing the name change and the pivot to virtual worldbuilding. Both Instagram and Facebook have been slammed for changing their algorithms to serve up material unrelated to an individual’s friends and family in an effort to stem the flow of users to TikTok.
With staff morale at it lowest historical point — according to internal surveys — and Meta gearing up for “very deep, philosophical competition” with its competitors over “what direction the internet should go in,” Zuckerberg’s gamble looks increasingly risky.
And then came this photo:
This was released on Zuckerberg’s Facebook with the caption: “We’re launching Horizon Worlds in France and Spain today! Looking forward to seeing people explore and build immersive worlds, and to bringing this to more countries soon”.
The internet, uh, responded appropriately. PCGamer wrote: “Mark Zuckerberg spent $10B on the metaverse and all he got was this stupid selfie” while Forbes covered it with: “Does Mark Zuckerberg not understand how bad his metaverse looks?”
On Twitter, the response was less diplomatic:
So as far as I can tell, the Metaverse is just Animal Crossing but you’re being hunted by Mark Zuckerberg. pic.twitter.com/ANrS2bynmS
— Andrew Nadeau (@TheAndrewNadeau) August 16, 2022
Say what you want about the graphics of the Metaverse but they really did seem to nail Zuckerberg’s perfectly featureless face
— jjjoe (@joeamendola) August 16, 2022
What gamer hell looks like: Sims with outdated graphics, ads and microtransactions.
— Evael 🇺🇦 (@alaylagw) June 19, 2022
Metaverse doesn’t even look as polished as Second Life, which came out in 2003.
Second Life also has a dedicated fanbase of deeply weird sex fetishists which keep it afloat.
What does the metaverse have?
— Rarian Rakista 🦊 (@rarianrakista) August 16, 2022
It’s funny, sure, but it underlines a bigger issue with Zuckerberg’s metaverse fantasies; it’s totally lame. If people don’t think it’s cool, they won’t use it, and there goes US$10 billion and, probably Meta as a company itself.
“Our north star is can we get a billion people into the metaverse doing hundreds of dollars a piece in digital commerce by the end of the decade?” Zuckerberg said in that same Q&A. Doing so with graphics that rival the Mii creatures from the 2006 Nintendo Wii is going to be tricky.
That last tweet however may be onto something. Meta’s Horizon World’s platform recently updated its ‘Mature World’s Policy‘ to allow:
“Content that is sexually suggestive; for example, near nudity, depictions of people in implied or suggestive positions, or an environment focused on activities that are overly suggestive.
“Worlds that are dedicated to or have a core focus on the promotion of marijuana, alcohol, tobacco, or age-regulated activities (including gambling).
“Intense or excessively violent fictional content, including blood and gore, that could shock or disgust users”.
Well, if “deeply weird sex fetishists” is where the real money is at, maybe Meta is just about desperate enough to make a bid for that market. Meanwhile, we’ll be sticking to actual reality, at least until someone can come up with a genuinely interesting use for the metaverse.