Imagine you teleport into a spaceship and are greeted by your closest friends: one appears as a bright red robot, another is floating above the ground and the others look like their normal selves. For the remainder of the evening, your ship traverses space while you play a game of cards and video-call with friends who cannot attend. Sounds impossible, right? Not according to Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg. He predicts a future where all of this and more is possible in the metaverse.
Zuckerberg is so committed to building metaverse technology that he even renamed the Facebook parent company to Meta last year. The name change reflected Zuckerberg’s desire for the company to be viewed as “a metaverse company,” rather than a social media company. Although the hype surrounding virtual reality and the metaverse has grown rapidly since Facebook became Meta, the company has mostly failed to deliver on users’ expectations.
Zuckerberg attributes Meta’s poor performance to the fact that transitioning to the metaverse will take years. In reality, Zuckerberg’s Meta is simply not the metaverse people want, and it is not the metaverse that technology in the foreseeable future can enable. His attempt to monopolize the metaverse will ultimately fail, and the future of the metaverse will be far more democratic than what he has to offer.
Meta’s host of problems begins with its attempt to monopolize the metaverse. They have a history of employing this tactic, having copied innovative features from lesser-known social media companies for years. In 2017, Meta stole Snapchat’s Stories feature and applied it to Instagram. The feature’s popularity boosted Instagram’s daily users from 100 million to 250 million in months, while Snapchat’s daily users dwindled. More recently, Meta replicated TikTok’s “For You” page with its own personalized video feature, “Instagram Reels.” According to Vox, Instagram Reels is key to the company’s strategy to “overtake TikTok as the No. 1 destination for short-form social video.”
Meta is now applying its monopolistic ambitions to the metaverse. Its bold name change is comparable to a predator marking its territory; smaller companies may be intimidated from developing on the metaverse when a tech giant like Meta is already doing so. Some of their strategies have been less obvious, such as its purchase of virtual reality (VR) headset maker Oculus in 2014. At the time, most consumers had little knowledge of Zuckerberg’s future plans for the VR company to be involved in the metaverse.
Meta’s tactics are highly problematic, to the extent that in September this year, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) filed a lawsuit against the company. They argued against Meta’s planned acquisition of the virtual reality fitness app, Within Unlimited, on the basis that it would violate antitrust law. According to the FTC, Meta’s buyout of Within Unlimited would “substantially lessen competition, or tend to create a monopoly, in the relevant market for VR dedicated fitness apps and the broader relevant mark for VR fitness apps.”
Monopolistic practices have worked well for Meta previously. However, these tactics are not feasible for the development of the metaverse, since the metaverse is not merely another social media app — it is a technological evolution. As Zuckerberg puts it, the metaverse is “the next version of the internet.” Yet, the internet could not have become what it is today if a single person or company had developed it. Even in its early stages, the Internet was established from the collective effort of thousands of creators from different backgrounds, cultures and perspectives.
Tom Boellstorff, an Anthropology professor at UC Irvine who has published extensive research regarding virtual worlds, reinforced the importance of diverse development. “We don’t want it to only be the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world who are calling the shots with [the metaverse],” Boellstorff said in an interview with New University.
“We want to have more voices, more open-source, non-profit kinds of spaces as well, and not have it all be corporate driven.”
Boellstorff’s words are an important reminder that monopolies hinder innovation, which explains why Meta’s technology has not met the standards it has set.
In Meta’s 2021 keynote, Zuckerberg claimed that the metaverse differs from current forms of virtual communication because it creates a “deep feeling of presence.” The remainder of the keynote simulated this “presence” by portraying users pursuing activities like gaming, going to school and working in the metaverse.
While enticing, the technological feats showcased are as believable as an episode of Netflix’s Black Mirror. Zuckerberg briefly mentioned in the video that the metaverse “doesn’t… exist yet… [and Meta is simply showing] what different kinds of metaverse experiences could feel like,” but the hour-long keynote set high expectations for Meta.
Reality could not be more different than the experiences Zuckerberg described — reviews for both Meta’s VR headsets and metaverse platforms are poor. Brian Chen, a writer for the New York Times, wrote about trying out Meta’s $1500 Quest Pro.
“After I removed the headset and returned to reality-reality, I could only imagine wanting to use these new features to play games… I was also doubtful that I would get any work done with this headset.”
Adi Robertson from The Verge said that using the Quest Pro made her feel “consistently nauseated… thanks to the constant visual clash of real and virtual worlds.”
Meta’s primary VR game, Horizon Worlds, has performed even worse. Users were taken aback by its disappointingly basic renderings, the fact that avatars in the game lack legs and most importantly, that there is not much to do in the virtual world yet. Horizon Worlds has been so underwhelming that Meta’s VP of the metaverse, Vishal Shah, issued a statement that the company would be on “‘quality lockdown’ for the rest of the year to ‘ensure that [they could] fix … quality gaps and performance issues before [they opened] up Horizon to more users.’”
Entwined with Meta’s technology struggles is the company’s lack of understanding of what users want to gain from the metaverse. While there are only 200,000 monthly active users (MAU) using Horizon Worlds, metaverses like Roblox, Fortnite and Sandbox attract over 200 million MAU collectively.
These companies have significantly less resources compared to Meta. However, they are more successful metaverses because they have simple premises and a clear target: the gaming community. Conversely, Meta’s Horizon Worlds and Quest Pro devices are attempting to appeal to every demographic, from students to professionals to gamers, without becoming adequately helpful or enjoyable to use for any of them.
Meta’s monopolistic approach thus far has resulted in technological struggles and a lack of clarity that has negatively impacted their economic value. The company’s shares have fallen by 67% since last year, translating to a loss of about $700 billion. Even Zuckerberg’s wealth has been impacted. In the last 12 months, he has lost $88 billion.
Meta’s failure to produce the technology it promised is bad and good news for students like us at UCI. On the negative side, it means that current students will not be able to enjoy the fantastic educational benefits Meta has predicted in the metaverse. For example, studying the solar system by zooming in on 3D planets or teleporting to ancient civilizations virtually to “get a sense of the rhythm of life over 2,000 years ago.”
That being said, Meta’s failure to successfully monopolize the metaverse is also encouraging. It means that our generation will have the agency to impact what the metaverse looks like and its capabilities. Instead of using technology simply handed to us by an all-powerful tech giant, we can shape the metaverse either by becoming an engineer who builds it or by supporting less corporate-driven metaverses — such as Second Life, Decentraland or even Animal Crossing. As long as the future of the metaverse is democratic, it will serve users well for generations to come.
Meta’s bet on the metaverse will not play out as Zuckerberg had hoped. While it is positive that the company is contributing to the world’s next technological evolution, Meta is trying to accomplish more than one single company — irrespective of its wealth — can handle. To deliver on the fantastic promises Zuckerberg has made about the metaverse, countless more companies and developers will need to work to diversify and compete amongst one another to build the best metaverses. Otherwise, metaverse technology will never fulfill its incredible potential.
Chaya Sandhu is an Opinion Intern for the fall 2022 quarter. She can be reached at email@example.com.