Axios reports that Facebook - sorry, Meta - is putting the metaverse on the back burner:
This week the firm announced a massive second round of layoffs. It recently killed off its Portal platform. And CEO Mark Zuckerberg, while not disavowing his metaverse dream, sounds more eager to talk about AI.
[…] “Our single largest investment is in advancing AI and building it into every one of our products,” Zuckerberg wrote. “Our leading work building the metaverse and shaping the next generation of computing platforms also remains central to defining the future of social connection.”
My working model for Facebook’s growth is that it is closely tied to the growth of the internet: as more and more people came online, Facebook was there to help them connect with each other. When the internet was new, there wasn’t much in the way of nuanced mainstream criticism of it as a platform. People were excited to connect and share and a minority thought it was the devil. There wasn’t much in-between.
These days, though, most people are already online. The internet isn’t new or exciting: it’s a utility that just about everybody has. Correspondingly, the ways society interacts with and on the internet have become more nuanced and thoughtful, just as the ways in which people have interacted with any media have always evolved.
Meta isn’t that thoughtful or nuanced a company, and this change in how the internet works in the context of most people’s lives has laid this lack of vision bare. The concept of the metaverse was driven by the hype over web3. Now that crypto has become less popular, many of the same people are excited about AI. In turn, AI will face a downturn, and they’ll be on to the next thing. This is expected and normal for the kinds of cash-driven charlatans who have swarmed Silicon Valley since venture capital rose to prominence, but it’s more surprising for the leadership of a multi-billion-dollar company. I’d expect it to have more vision, and it just doesn’t.
To be a little charitable to it, perhaps Meta is subject to the same kinds of winds that led to its layoffs. We know that layoffs aren’t helpful or profitable, but we also know that shareholders want to see them if other companies are doing them. So it’s perfectly reasonable to assume that shareholders may also see other companies pivot to web3 or AI and want Meta to do it too. A strong enough vision - something that carries shareholders and employees alike along - could counteract these expectations, but in the absence of that, the company is flotsam and jetsam to the hype cycle.
Meta didn’t invent social networking, and it didn’t invent the best social networking platform. It was in the right place at the right time, and was smart enough to buy Instagram when mobile internet was in its relative infancy. I’m sure it can be profitable off the base of those platforms for a long time to come. But at the same time, it’s not clear to me that lightning can strike twice for it without major leadership changes. Not when its strategy seems to be “throw shit at the wall”, and certainly not when the shit it’s throwing is the same shit everyone else is throwing.
I’ve been publicly critical of the company for 19 years now, but I want to make clear that there are lots of very talented people who work for it. Running a platform at this sort of scale requires a unique set of technology chops; it also requires all kinds of social and legislative infrastructure that other tech companies can barely even imagine. It’s not like it’s easy. And that’s how it found itself facilitating a genocide. Every single one of those people deserves stronger leadership. The internet does too: whether we like it or not, Meta has a leading role in how the internet develops, and it has not risen to that challenge. Over time, that will become clearer and clearer. It will be interesting to see what happens to it in the long term.
Photo by Glen Carrie on Unsplash