Column The further we get from the sudden and spectacular pivot-and-rename of Facebook, the more it looks like the most spectacularly ill-conceived business decision of the 21st century.
Facebook was already not only a radioactive brand but also teetering on the edge. The former because regulators are closing in, the latter because Apple had found one neat trick to undermine the social network's business model of advertising-via-continuous-surveillance. Plus, Facebook admitted that young people heading into their high-spending and advertiser-attracting years don't much care for its products.
With profits down and the future looking like a slow, painful decline into 'has-been' status, the CEO and controlling shareholder (who already drove the decisions that had transformed his trillion-dollar enterprise into a social media Chernobyl) announced he and his thousands of employees and billions of users would sidestep all that karma by disappearing into another universe.
It's a nice trick, if you can manage it. But as soon as you cross that threshold, you confront a truth that metaverse pioneers discovered decades ago: the only things in the metaverse are what we bring with us. Our passions and predilections, all of our crazy baggage and misperceptions. Wherever you go in the metaverse, there you are.
Stumbling in and acting like you own the joint will produce an immune response that sees the foreign body ejected.
If, for example, a megalomaniacal control freak found their way into the metaverse, their first instinct might be to try to make the metaverse their metaverse – pointedly ignoring the many years of work by others or, where that proves too difficult, by 'embracing and extending' those works. All of this has happened before, and all of it is happening again.
But, because the metaverse has been around far longer than … *checks notes* … Meta, it has a life of its own. It has plans. And it has powers. It looks as though the metaverse isn't going to take colonisation by Facebook, or anyone, lying down. Within a few days, the first of the metaverse wars had begun.
Microsoft has been working on the metaverse for a number of years – its Hololens is among the oldest and most mature 'mixed' reality products. But more than anything else, Microsoft provides the software that operates the modern enterprise. When the Meta-CEO talked up the potentials of the metaverse as the future of business meetings, conferencing and collaboration, Microsoft responded within days by announcing Mesh for Teams – a blending of its Slack-strangling collaboration tool and its years of work in mixed reality. Meta's move to own the enterprise space in the metaverse was – in the space of a modest Microsoft product announcement – cut down to a tickbox feature.
Microsoft is not about to let another monopolist anywhere near its monopoly. Nor will Cisco go quietly - a couple of weeks ago it announced a holographic interface for WebEx.
- Trust Facebook to find a way to make video conferencing more miserable and tedious
- South Korea’s top telco launches 'metaverse'
- Facebook granted patent for 'artificial reality' baseball cap. Repeat, an 'artificial reality' baseball cap
- South Korea creates ‘metaverse alliance’ to build an open national VR platform
And what of everything else we might need in the metaverse? Would Meta try to control all of the commerce portals – undermining Amazon, eBay and Shopify, and every other company with a storefront? And would it expect that to go uncontested? The world has that Facebook is a terrible host - ask any app provider or publisher whose business was damaged by whimsical changes to the News Feed if they'd bet on Facebook again.
What about the payments providers? Would Meta try to step in front of PayPal, or VISA, or American Express?
For over two years, the artist formerly known as Facebook has been pushing its own digital currency – formerly Libra, now Diem – as a global currency for payments both here in the real world and, it's safe to assume, in its metaverse. The world's central bankers have done everything in their power to slow-walk that attempt to route around their own powers as economic gatekeepers, while they prepare their own digital currencies.
But would fiat currency even be usable in the metaverse, or would it need to be exchanged for company scrip as you crossed the threshold – spendable only in the company store, at a price the company sets?
Hiring tens of thousands of metaverse engineers does not address any of these issues. These questions centre on who has enough power to get to say what is real in the metaverse. Stumbling in and acting like you own the joint will only produce an immune response that sees the foreign body surrounded, isolated and ejected.
I imagine we're in for a lot of that sort of thing over the next few years, as a wide range of businesses come to realise they're already metaverse businesses, and move to defend their turf from the invaders.
After redpilling him, Morpheus asks Neo, "What is the Matrix?" He then answers his own question: "Control." Here's hoping we can keep this warning front of mind, while reminding ourselves that things rarely go well for the colonised. ®