What is best in life?
Call me the world’s happiest cynic, then, because when I predicted the utter and catastrophic failure of Facebook’s rebranding as “Meta” starting less than a year ago, I genuinely didn’t think it would all unravel as quickly and ignominiously as it has. Horizon Worlds, Meta’s intended metaverse, went live in December and, my god, it has been downhill from there.
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The good news is that we’re getting a lot of free entertainment out of Mark Zuckerberg’s attempts to be “the face” of this dead-end transition, and the past few weeks have seen some real highlights, culminating with a transcendently embarrassing appearance on Joe Rogan’s podcast last week. Zuck and his marketing team are still seemingly in thrall to the Meta CEO’s former status as a Silicon Valley wunderkind, evidently blinding them to his nearly supernatural lack of personal appeal.
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The results are frequently, in a word, delicious for a hater like me. And while the sizzle comes in the form of incredible public relations embarrassments, after that comes the steak: Facebook’s pivot to Meta is crashing and burning as a material business proposition with astonishing rapidity.
The past few weeks have been particularly brutal for Zuckerberg’s grand ambition to create a Second Life mod in which everyone is a double amputee. The current (far from first) wave of embarrassing flubs kicked off on August 17 when Zuckerberg posted a “selfie” from Meta’s Horizon World’s rollout in France. As pretty much everyone was happy to point out, it looked embarrassingly bad – not just like a game built to roughly 2007 levels of detail and immersion, but like one without the slightest spark of design creativity.
Uncreative, passive, pointless
This lack of creative juice can’t be overemphasized. There are genuine technological limits to the graphical fidelity and avatar-tracking that’s possible in an immersive virtual reality (VR) environment, but Horizon Worlds could have done a lot better within those limits. Compare its aggressively bland corporate vibe to the spectacularly colorful Minecraft-inspired voxels of The Sandbox (which has an alpha season open right now, FYI).
That comes down substantially to business models. Blockchain-backed metaverse projects like Sandbox and Decentraland are gratifyingly weird and quirky in part because they’re fairly chaotic organizations answering to a lot of stakeholders. But Zuckerberg has effectively total control of Meta, and the emptiness inside of him is written across every pixel of his creation.
Zuckerberg followed up with an even less-realistic simulation, when he last week appeared on an episode of the “Joe Rogan Experience” as an uncanny mimic of Rogan’s martial-arts loving, red-meat fanbase. Bloomberg’s Max Chafkin has a definitive read on this one, but in a nutshell Zuckerberg made the case that virtual reality will make you more of an ass-kicking alpha, compared to the “beta” passivity of watching television.
This is hilarious for at least three reasons. First, sitting inside staring at screens will never make you more vigorous – for god’s sake, touch grass. Second, Zuckerberg himself has already spread more hormone-sapping passivity in the world than maybe any other single person via Facebook and Instagram. And third, on a personal level, it’s hard to think of a less-convincing pitchman than the eternally affectless-to-miserable Zuck for any supposed shortcut to leading a more fulfilling human life.
A real business?
But this is all just theater and window dressing, however gobsmackingly inane. The real question is how Meta’s Reality Labs is doing as a business. And the answer is … surprisingly, maybe, better than you think! But still pretty rotten once you scratch the surface.
You see, it turns out that Meta actually sold a whole lot of its Oculus Quest 2 headsets over the 2021 holiday season, with app installs suggesting about 2 million new units activated over a two-week period. For comparison, a little over 20 million total Playstation 5 consoles and 15 million Xbox Series X units have sold in the past two years.
But that comparison itself is a problem for Zuckerberg’s real goals: If the Quest or successor units are successful as video game consoles, they’re probably still a failure. You see, the units are almost certainly being sold at a big loss. This more or less affirms that the long-term business model is the same kind of data harvesting and ad monetization that Facebook and Instagram run on.
That means Zuckerberg doesn’t actually want you using the headset for playing Superhot VR, he wants you in Horizon Worlds specifically, having the kind of data-rich social interactions that he can use to spy on your tastes, habits and network, then nudge you into clicking on advertisements.
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To be crystal clear, Horizon Worlds’ morally execrable agenda, which essentially amounts to commercialized mind control verging on psychological abuse, is the main reason it’s so fun to watch Zuckerberg flounder. This is a man who has harmed society, so celebrating his not-so-slow downfall is a completely guilt-free pleasure.
But it’s even more delightful that serious business observers seem to believe he’s going to completely flub even this manipulative agenda.
Equity markets utterly loathe Facebook’s pivot to the metaverse, and every word about it coming out of Zuckerberg’s mouth. Over the past six months – that is, even after its epic 26% one-day crash in February – Meta’s stock has underperformed both every other major tech stock except Netflix, and the overall market. Meta is down 21% for that span, versus a 4% drop for Apple (AAPL), a 15% drop for Amazon (AMZN), a 10% drop for the Dow Jones industrials and a 14% drop for the Nasdaq composite index.
There are endless reasons for this, but one in particular deserves highlighting. As Kotaku’s reviewer observed, Horizon Worlds is currently packed with hall monitor-like “community guides” keeping watch on what’s going on. From a business perspective, that might be the scariest signal of all, highlighting the risk that Horizon Worlds will be even harder to moderate for offensive or dangerous content and behaviors than Facebook already is. If the “community guides” are a permanent necessity, as 15,000 content moderators still are at Facebook, the whole thing may yet prove fundamentally economically non-viable.
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Then there’s the ultimate sign of imminent doom – the June departure of former Meta Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg. Sandberg has always been the “adult in the room” at Facebook/Meta, the person who knew how to turn a mind-destroying Skinner Box into a profitable business. (Which is, yes, an embarrassing reality given that Zuckerberg is now nearly 40.) Sandberg’s departure signals a deep lack of faith by probably the single living human who knows the most about what’s actually going on over there.
And that’s no simulation.
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