What's Went Wrong With Meta's Metaverse Plans? Read/Hear <em>Making a Metaverse That Matters</em> to Find Out!

With Meta's latest earnings report published this week, we find out the company has now burned invested $42 billion on building the Metaverse, with little to show for that: Its metaverse platform Horizon Worlds has less than an estimated 500,000 monthly active users, while sales of its Quest VR headset line (a metaverse peripheral) remain steadfastly small. (More on that next week.)

What went wrong? In hopes that Meta and the industry at large can learn from past mistakes, I detail Meta's missteps in Making a Metaverse That Matters. (Now available for a free listen on Audible with a subscription!) 

Here's some key excerpts, broke down in three key factors:

Failure to Clearly Define or Explain the Metaverse — Even Internally

John Carmack then mentions that the team at Meta still wasn’t clear what that actually even meant.

“‘Metaverse' means different things to different people, and you need clarity of purpose. And I tried to get some of that, like, 'What exactly do we mean?' And there was still lots of hand-waving.”

According to a survey conducted in late 2022 by Blind, confidence in the Metaverse and Meta's efforts around it had dropped sharply over the previous 12 months: To the statement, "I believe Meta will successfully build the metaverse", 77% of Meta staff had answered in the affirmative. By December 2022, only 50% of them answered Yes.

John Carmack, who has envisioned creating the Metaverse since the 90s — but has frequently and publicly chided Meta’s excessively high level “architecture astronaut" approach to building it — finally resigned his senior consultant role at Meta in late 2022. That late 2022 Blind survey, by the way, also asked Meta staff if Mark Zuckerberg had clearly explained what the Metaverse even is. 56% of his own employees answered No.

Two more excerpts after the break!


Zuckerberg Metaverse book

Ignoring Decades of Past Wisdom from Previous Successful Metaverse Platforms

Soon after launch, Horizon Worlds was barraged by a slew of bad press when a female journalist reported being sexually assaulted in the virtual world, with male avatars aggressively grinding up against her own avatar almost immediately after she logged into the world.

The violation was horrible, but completely predictable. Understanding and preparing for avatar-to-avatar harassment, especially directed at female avatars, has been a recurring virtual world challenge for decades.  

Was no one on the team experienced enough to anticipate it? 

As I soon learned, however, Meta was warned this would happen, many times — it was a recurring theme in internal talks given byJim Purbrick. But somehow, his warnings, recommendations, and best practice summaries were not centered. 

"I was literally banging the drum at Oculus Connect two years in a row," Jim Purbrick told me with evident frustration. "I also told every new Oculus employee I met to read My Tiny Life in addition to Ready Player One, but the message didn't reach every part of the organization, sadly." 

My Tiny Life is Julian Dibbell's classic account of virtual world sexual assault from the 1990s; Yes, the problem has been well-known and documented for that long. (The book also inspired me, as a very young writer, to consider the possibility of embedded avatar-based journalism.) 

“There are a lot of griefing and bullying behaviors that [Meta] seem somewhat slow to respond to,” Cory Ondrejka puts it tactfully. “And that's just failing to have learned from prior lessons.”

Forcing Facebook's Real Life identity Model On Its Metaverse Design

Meta’s confusion over avatars is best illustrated by the strangely avatarized version of Mark Zuckerberg himself — the one from 2022, with huge, childlike eyes worthy of a Margaret Keane painting.

The backlash and ridicule that followed was so fierce, it even seemed to hurt Meta’s stock price. While market fluctuations are impelled by many factors, the simple fact is that Meta’s share price was 181, on the evening of August 15th, 2022, when the big-eyed announcement was made. By August 19 — with no other obvious factor at play, beyond the social virality of Mark Zuckerberg’s bizarre avatar — Meta’s share price had fallen to 167.

Scrambling in response to such a storm of Internet snark, Zuckerberg hastily posted a new update to his Facebook wall, depicting a much more detailed and realistic version of his avatar, which looked even more like Zuckerberg IRL.  

This follow-up confirmed that Meta really did seem to believe that ideally, metaverse platform avatars should resemble their real world users as much as possible.

For newcomers to metaverse platforms, this is a common assumption, enforced by mainstream press coverage, which tends to cover virtual world events involving real life celebrities — for instance, Travis Scott in Fortnite, or Lil Nas X in Roblox. (More on them in Chapter 10.) For occasions like a mixed reality concert, it does make sense for the avatar to resemble their real life owner.

But this is actually the exception. Overwhelmingly, metaverse platform users do not prefer avatars based on their real life appearance — even when the internal tools to customize them that way exist. 

This should have been clear to Meta even before the company began formulating its approach to avatars. By then, the most popular metaverse platforms were very much not architected to be mirror images of its users — Minecraft and Roblox with its blocky or LEGO-like avatars, Fortnite with its expressively stylized cartoonish characters — or to consider a VR-centric example, the floating marionette-esque avatars of Rec Room.

According to a survey of hundreds of thousands of gamers conducted by Nick Yee and his QuanticFoundry firm, by the way, about 1 in 3 men prefer to play as female avatars. (With about 1 in 10 females choosing male avatars.)  

Why did Meta design avatars to look like their real life owner, when 1 in 3 males don’t even want avatars that share their real life gender?

As we’ll explore in later chapters, the popularity of non-realistic avatars reflects the internal motivations of people who most enjoy metaverse platforms — especially the very young, who comprise their core user base: They are in virtual worlds where they can explore and create and experiment with identity, which they are still developing and in their own lives.

Available on Amazon and Audible here and on BookShop benefiting indie stores here.

Also available free on Audiobooks.com for a 3 month trial subscription — listen to an excerpt above!

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