Facebook’s “pivot to video” destroyed businesses that went along. The metaverse could be a repeat act.
A clip has been tearing its way around Twitter this week, showing a Walmart-branded demonstration of shopping in “the metaverse.”
Reactions from Twitter users have been, in a word, brutal. The demo was “worse than current online shopping in literally every way,” one said. At the most basic level, it would destroy the main benefit of shopping online: not having to navigate store aisles and shelves.
To be clear, this isn’t a new clip: It was produced for SXSW in 2017. Nonetheless, the video does capture the default approach as corporate America works frantically to show that it’s ready for “the metaverse.”
On the surface, the entire premise of this sort of nonsense is that people will enjoy and use inferior metaverse applications just because … 3D is cool, I guess? Certainly, there’s no attention paid to what users actually want or need out of an online shopping experience. On the most basic level, why would you go to the trouble of designing a virtual Walmart that looks … exactly like a physical Walmart? Shopping in a real Walmart is fairly awful. If you’re in a 3D virtual world, maybe take advantage of the literally limitless possibilities to redesign the experience.
Don’t expect anything better as various moribund and existentially terrified organizations trot out their “metaverse applications.” They’re mostly going to be awful, in part out of a pure lack of imagination: Remember, for instance, when newspapers “got on the web” by posting what were essentially PDFs of their print pages?
More importantly, these efforts aren’t really for users in the first place – they’re meant to dazzle investors, especially those in their fifties and above looking for public market opportunities to extract profit from young people. That, of course, was the real point of Facebook’s own rebranding as “Meta,” so we can’t expect any better from the drooling dinosaurs who will inevitably fall into step behind Mark Zuckerberg’s Pied Piper routine.
And it’s likely to end with them all cheerfully shambling off a (virtual?) cliff. That’s exactly what happened with Facebook’s embarrassing, disastrous “pivot to video” circa 2015-2016. The site started telling news organizations to prioritize video, leading companies like Vice, Vocativ and Upworthy to fire print journalists and hire videographers in their place.
Oh yeah, remember Upworthy? Vocativ? If not, maybe it’s because the pivot to video helped nudge them and other outlets further into bankruptcy and collapse by tanking page views. In fact, Facebook’s video push cost hundreds of journalists their jobs (eventually including those newly hired videographers) and badly wounded dozens of news organizations. Partly that was because Facebook didn’t understand its own audience and was wrong about the initial pivot. Partly it was because Facebook then allegedly lied to content creators and advertisers about the views videos were receiving.
And that was just a first draft. By pulling the rest of the tech world along on its farcical effort to sell VR headsets, Facebook is going to trick hundreds of potential competitors into wasting effort and capital on a fundamentally flawed idea.
Divergent visions of the metaverse
The metaverse-shopping clip also highlights confusion and controversy over what exactly the “metaverse” is. As many pointed out around Facebook’s announcement, the term was coined in ‘90s cyberpunk fiction as essentially a synonym for “virtual reality.” But starting around 2017, when no one else was really using the term, devs and theorists around Ethereum started using “metaverse” to refer to a world built on owned digital assets, such as NFTs, usable across a variety of interfaces. Sotheby’s was drawing on this discourse when it launched a “Sotheby’s Metaverse” brand for NFTs, for instance, before Facebook announced its own name change.
VR wasn’t really part of that blockchain-centric discussion at all, but the discourse did help Facebook co-opt some blockchain clout with its VR rebrand. Facebook already tried this once, with the utter faceplant formerly known as Libra, a would-be “cryptocurrency” (whatever that might have actually meant coming from Zuckerberg) that was so stupidly conceived and poorly thought through that leader David Marcus seemed not just unprepared, but genuinely surprised when members of Congress pressed him on some really obvious problems with the idea.
This is why blockchain and crypto insiders see control of the “metaverse” narrative as a competition between Facebook’s centralized corporate VRscape and a more radical decentralized, open version backed by systems like Decentraland or Ethereum itself.
If Facebook wins that conflict, we’ll have a repeat of exactly the same problem we see with Web 2.0 – if one company controls the backend infrastructure, particularly data-gathering, they face no competitive pressure to improve or innovate on the front-end experience. And have you visited Facebook.com lately? It’s at least as noisy, distracting, unpleasant and inconvenient as your average brick-and-mortar Walmart.
Facebook’s inept and allegedly deceptive handling of both social video and the Libra project should also be a deafening warning klaxon for companies currently pouring millions of dollars into “metaverse” projects. Facebook’s “Meta” rebrand is entirely self-interested, oriented towards selling a few headsets and bamboozling credulous investors. They certainly don’t give a damn about their users, and they don’t care much more about companies dependent on their platforms.
Companies that trot along obediently behind the newest declared buzzword will get exactly what they’re signing up for – a total lack of control, complete subservience to a more powerful entity and no guarantee that any of it will work. When Zuck rugs you, you’ll have no one to blame but yourself: Like Lucy with the football or the scorpion begging a ride from a frog, it’s just in his nature.