5 min read

Facebook, the Metaverse and Building Bridges

Facebook is all in on the metaverse. Or at least "OUR vision" for the metaverse. But they're not the only game in town, and it's up to the rest of us to decide who should own the toll roads connecting the metaverse.
Facebook, the Metaverse and Building Bridges

Facebook is all in on the metaverse.

Their intention is to pivot from being a media to metaverse company:

“And 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,” Zuckerberg said in an interview with the Verge.

Today, Andrew Bosworth (Boz) who leads Facebook Reality Labs, announced the formation of a metaverse product group that will pull in heavyweights from Instagram (Vishal Shah, head of product) and Facebook Gaming (Vivek Sharma will lead the Horizon teams, and Oculus OG while Jason Rubin will lead the Content team).

Continents on the Metaverse

Facebook joins Epic Games (makers of Fortnite), Niantic (makers of Pokémon Go, which is creating a metaverse at physical world-scale), Roblox and Apple (who will never call it the metaverse) in trying to build the next evolution in computing.

I recently wrote that the metaverse is a sort of cultural proxy term for a major shift in computing:

  • From one that is (mostly) flat and two-dimensional to one which is spatial
  • From a time when reality itself is separate from the digital, to a time when real-time digital content is mapped directly onto our own world (truly a "meta" layer on physical reality)
  • From a time when 3D environments are mostly for games, to one when we consume the majority of our entertainment and spend increasing amounts of our social and work time in 3D digital spaces.

The evidence of this shift can be found in everything from user hours 'in-worlds' to how much money is being spent, from virtual concerts that pull in millions of concurrent attendees to the increased capacity for our phones to take 3D snapshots or to scan the room with LiDAR in order to enhance augmented reality.

These provable trendlines, however, don't make a "metaverse". The Metaverse implies travel. It implies that we can move easily between 3D experiences as easily as we click a link in a browser.

(Although, there are a lot of bottlenecks with this too, as you experience everytime you hit a sign-up form, paywall or need to enter your credit card number YET AGAIN).

Imagine needing a browsers for social media, and then another for shopping, and another to read the news.

That's the experience of the metaverse today: you need one client for Roblox, you need an app to play Pokemon Go, you need a different app for Fortnite and you even need special equipment to jump into VR.

And just like the web, you also need different 'identities' (sign-ups) and wallets to fully participate in these spaces.

The continents are getting bigger but there's no way to move between them and we can't easily take our identity, possessions and money with us.

As Facebook describes it: "But to achieve our full vision of the Metaverse, we also need to build the connective tissue between these spaces -- so you can remove the limitations of physics and move between them with the same ease as moving from one room in your home to the next."

Oh: I bolded the word "our". We'll come back to that.

The Cultural Layer of the Metaverse and the Tech Stack

Right now, culturally, the metaverse is a big amorphous blob against which a lot of ideas are being attached.

Most people have never heard of it. Most people don't care whether Hololens will ever become a consumer device and they aren't sitting at home wondering about the FOV on a pair of Nreal glasses. They only care whether it sounds cool and what they'll be able to do once they get there - even if "there" is some generalized future.

Javier interpreted my observation of this fact as a disservice:

And Javier is right: because beneath all of this top level noise is the hard work of creating the actual technology that will make it work, and the even tougher job of creating the standards that will help make all of this seamless interconnectivity possible.

We can talk for days in generalities about 'the metaverse'.

But that talk MATTERS, because culture eventually translates into requests for development, for projects.

"Give me one of those NFT things," is what they're yelling right now in some headquarters somewhere. And next up (believe me, I've been asked): "get me onto the Metaverse!"

Meanwhile, programmers and developers sit in a room and actually make stuff.

And what they develop will have embedded values. Code is not agnostic. Code makes a statement about what we believe, whether it's through insisting that you use your real name and birth gender or that transactions be distributed (or centralized).

Code becomes culture and culture becomes code. Usually the former, as anonymized email, lack of micropayments and other design choices in how the Internet was built makes clear.

Which brings us back to that "our" word that Boz used: "But to achieve our full vision of the Metaverse, we also need to build the connective tissue between these spaces."

Now, maybe when he said "OUR" and "WE" he meant all of us: but unless we're all reporting in to this new product team that he mentioned in the next paragraph, I think he's really talking about Facebook.

And so let's be concrete: we'd better be concerned about who's making the decisions about how all of these worlds will interconnect; how anonymity, pseudoanonymity and identity will be handled (signed in with your Facebook account into VR lately?); who will have access to our bank records once we arrive;  whether users will value sex or shopping, creativity or socializing; and how the whole damn thing will be paid for in the first place.

You Build the World

We're at an inflection point. The buzz will die down. Or, more accurately, it will come in waves. Everyone will talk about the metaverse for a few weeks and then people will get back to work.

But Facebook's announcement is another proof point that the largest players around are making huge and very public bets on the 'metaverse'.

But we all have agency here. Facebook doesn't have an ordained right to determine what the metaverse should be, or how the connective tissue should be designed.

Thankfully, I actually have some faith in the Reality Labs team and their willingness to publish, share, and participate in open source initiatives. (Their bosses on the other hand are a different story).

The storylines are being drawn: some of them highly tangible and specific (passthrough VR!) and some of them vague and aspirational.

At the one end of the spectrum are the big players like Facebook. And they'll either become....well, Facebook, but making even more money from the ever-greater amounts of time we spend with them.

Or, they might become AOL. Trying to build a giant closed garden and then discovering it all blown away by the tsunami of a more open metaverse.

Because at the other end of the spectrum is a grass-roots led version of the metaverse. One in which NFTs aren't just over-inflated fan clubs, but a proof of concept that value can be decentralized and ripped from the control of centralized corporations and governments.

In this more open metaverse, maybe the values of creativity, beautiful code and co-creation can help to get these new worlds right.

In truth, both will exist: huge continents and smaller islands, open seas and walled kingdoms.

But perhaps the interplay between the two will allow for a convergence of culture and code which values the user first, and the very human experience of entering whole new worlds.