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A few weeks ago, in what was perhaps the least meta move imaginable, Facebook CEO (and famed smoker of meats) Mark Zuckerberg took the stage to announce that the quintessential social media giant would rebrand as Meta. The company explained the change in a launch blog with a breathless appeal to human progress:
The metaverse is the next evolution of social connection. Our company’s vision is to help bring the metaverse to life, so we are changing our name to reflect our commitment to this future.
Though arguably underwhelming, it's probably a mistake to dismiss the rebrand as a juke from bad publicity. In fact, the name change neatly encapsulates the ubiquity Facebook stands to attain with its new trajectory. Markets are slavering at the thought of a Facebook Metaverse. The quiet pastures of Decentraland ran with bubbling crude as the MANA token surged 44% on the news.
While the core platform will retain its familiar signifier, the brand formerly known as Facebook hopes to reinvent itself as a "metaverse company," a friendly facilitator of social exchange in the wild blue yonder of the sprawling Metaverse. Even by simply replacing the familiar blue logo with a gaming controller, Meta makes it known that they will forge the technologies and features that will make the Metaverse a reality.
We're scared too.
In order to place these things on the Street, they have had to get approval from the Global Multimedia Protocol Group, have had to buy frontage on the Street, get zoning approval, obtain permits, bribe inspectors, the whole bit. The money these corporations pay to build things on the Street all goes into a trust fund owned and operated by the GMPG, which pays for developing and expanding the machinery that enables the Street to exist.
— Neil Stephenson, Snow Crash
For the past fifteen years, Facebook has maintained its position as a market leader by anticipating major trends—or, failing that, by dictating them. You'd need look no further for evidence than the arbitrary, slavishly performative Like button, now the lodestone of the "social web."
It's hard to imagine what the Internet might have become without the social media heuristics of sharing, validation, and amplification. As we prepare to look down the barrel of the web itself, it's worth considering that there's more up for grabs than the hardware.
When the Metaverse becomes reality, its architects will get to define the contexts that come with it. The "next evolution of the Internet" will require agreed-upon information schemas. Some will be analogous to the universal image formats of our day, but the superreal dimension of the Metaverse could require us to patent new forms of augmented perception. Sixth senses are old news; how about twenty-five ways to send you a feeling?
The metaverse arms race is underway, and Facebook came out brawling long ago. Since acquiring Oculus in 2014 Facebook has defied market expectations to emerge as a heavyweight contender, netting comfortable sales of 2 million units per quarter on its Oculus Quest 2 headset.
If you're not up on your Snow Crash, the seminal Metaverse explorer Hiro Protagonist accessed his coded kingdom using a similar interface. As Meta pours untold development resources into its line of virtual- and augmented reality hardware (and tunes their specs to make children less punchable), it's clear that they aim to be the final word in metaverse goggles.
Meta seems to be doing what it does best. By releasing a feature-forward product a half decade earlier than everyone else, they'll undoubtedly gain an early mover advantage on their lurch to the gravitational center of the Metaverse—irrespective of any unsubstantiated claims regarding haptic feedback tech.
The scariest thing about the impending Facebook Metaverse is how good they are at everything. Long gone are the days of the real-time CRUD app. The Facebook Newsfeed is now jacked up with countless algorithms that instantaneously muscle curated posts higher up the page based on the content's degree of "long-term value" (though who decides that is anyone's guess).
Engineers for Facebook's React library work diligently to release smarter components, enable faster server-side rendering, and implement other fractional optimizations to improve frontend responsivity. Thanks to them, "time to paint" is the asymptotic, #FFFFFF-colored whale of e-comm leads everywhere.
As is too often the case, better UX doesn't mean it's better for the end-user's health. We humans possess tragically limited perceptual machines. Artful engineering has made us sleepwalkers. There are entire social media communities dedicated to decoupling from the pernicious effects of social media, and the poor souls don't even realize the tautological drama at work. You can't blame Facebook for every ill, but it certainly makes the list of worst offenders.
Facebook's ad ecosystem refined the art of capturing human attention for a quick buck. Such charges are an old saw at this point. Yet most laypeople seem indifferent to the fact that Facebook also houses some of the world's most elite research incubators for machine- and deep learning technologies. Fewer still are perturbed that Facebook is teaching AI to see as humans do.
Neil Stephenson tried to warn us. In the final pages of Snow Crash, Hiro Protagonist foils a scheme to hijack the minds of unwitting 'versers using a digital virus. Once we break the fourth wall, whoever controls the Metaverse may be able to sway minds from an attack vector originating pre-perception.
Suspicion seems like a healthy approach to a company that has already abused our human hardware. Facebook practically gave us the social web—and the advertising touchpoints to go with. Where will it corral us when they finally manage to infiltrate our senses?
Trust is a zero-sum game, and Meta has an uphill battle before them. It's going to take a lot of convincing before individuals will allow the house that Facebook built to control their interactions in a novel digital context. Thankfully, the company has already made some public statements that suggest it has learned from mistakes.
In November, Facebook discontinued the use of facial recognition on its platforms. Though careful to insist on the positive applications of such technology (and vowing to explore them), VP of Artificial Intelligence Jerome Pesenti wrote:
We believe this has the potential to enable positive use cases in the future that maintain privacy, control and transparency, and it’s an approach we’ll continue to explore as we consider how our future computing platforms and devices can best serve people’s needs. For potential future applications of technologies like this, we’ll continue to be public about intended use, how people can have control over these systems and their personal data, and how we’re living up to our responsible innovation framework.
The world's cynics may now balk. When Facebook VELCROs itself to your skull to scan your retinae, we won't blame you for daydreaming about that back alley "Minority Report special." It deserves commendation that Facebook removed a feature with useful accessibility applications out of deference to user privacy, but you'd be naïve to think that nobody crunched the numbers on the potential gain.
Shortly before announcing its rebranding to Meta, Facebook mounted a massive hiring push to build "the next computing platform" with the help of 10,000 new tech staffers. In the press release, the company seems oddly clued-in to what we've been saying about fortified philosophies:
No one company will own and operate the metaverse. Like the internet, its key feature will be its openness and interoperability. Bringing this to life will take collaboration and cooperation across companies, developers, creators and policymakers. For Facebook, it will also require continued investment in product and tech talent, as well as growth across the business.
No company will "own" the Metaverse—except for whoever plugs the thing in. In Snow Crash, that was the Global Multimedia Protocol Group, the dowdy and otherwise inconsequential corporation supplying a convenient backstory for the Metaverse. Coupled with its dominance over VR hardware, Meta seems to be angling for control from both ends. The question is, how sincere are Meta's overtures to playing nice?