The metachallenges of the metaverse

Boy with VR headset on

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg told listeners to his July 2021 quarterly earnings call that “I expect people will transition from seeing us as a social-media company to seeing us as a metaverse company.” A few weeks later, the business plan had morphed into a political plan and the Washington Post headlined, “How Facebook’s ‘metaverse’ became a political strategy in Washington.” “[T]he metaverse is already a full-on political push,” the article explained, with the goal to position the company “far from the controversies of social media”, such as privacy, antitrust, content moderation, and political extremism.

But Zuckerberg is wrong. Far from pushing today’s online problems off the front page, the metaverse heightens our challenges. Issues such as personal privacy, marketplace competition, and misinformation only become greater challenges in the metaverse due to the interconnectedness of that phenomenon. Rather than being distracted by the shiny new bauble, policymakers need to focus on the underlying problems of the digital revolution, which won’t go away with new technological developments.

Just what is this “metaverse”? Today’s online activity can be described as a 2D experience; the metaverse is a 3D experience that can utilize augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), and persistent connections to create an immersive world. Rather than spending 20-30 minutes a day moving among apps, users spend hours in much more realistic activities. As Zuckerberg explained, “you can think about this [the metaverse] as an embodied internet that you are inside of rather than just looking at.”

Facebook “is meeting with think tanks to discuss the creation of standards and protocols for the coming virtual world,” the Post reports. Standards to define technical functionality have long been the backbone of the internet. Unfortunately, those technical rules seldom addressed behavioral effects of the technology.

The threshold question is whether the new quest for standards is more than a strategic deflection from a company beleaguered by regulatory and judicial attacks and weakening support from the general public.

Facebook was built on the demolition of standards—that is what its original motto, “move fast and break things” was all about. The things being broken weren’t physical objects, but the practices that had provided social and economic stability for over a century. Such a breaking of preexisting norms has historically been the path to advances in science, business, and the arts. What is significant about the digital rule-breaking is both the wonder of its innovative new products as well as how those products were implemented without regard to the consequences being created.

In response to the negative fallout from the actions of Facebook as well other digital giants, Facebook launched an advertising campaign that must have cost tens-of-millions of dollars. “Facebook supports updated regulation” the campaign proclaims. If “move fast and break things” destroyed accepted behavioral standards, the advertising is proposing watered-down standards defined in ways so as to not adversely affect Facebook’s business.

The firm deserves credit for at least enumerating ideas at a time when the other digital giants have not been as explicit. The new effort to define standards should also not be dismissed. However, because the new metaverse will be constructed upon much of the “old” online universe, any metaverse policy effort must begin with meaningful rules for what exists now.

The seminal asset, and thus the seminal issue, in the digital era is access to—and control of—personal information. In the current online world, the digital companies have siphoned personal information and then stored, manipulated, and repackaged that data in order to sell access to targeted users. If the metaverse is moving to a persistent pseudo-world, then the amount of data collected will be immense, as will the opportunity to monetize that data. “I think digital goods and creators are just going to be huge,” Zuckerberg explained. Facebook plans to focus on the sale of virtual goods, which like advertising, will require the collection and exploitation of personal data.

Control of data also permits control of markets. After capturing personal information, the digital companies’ next step is to build a moat around it to deny access to others. The Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) antitrust suit against Facebook describes a “buy-or-bury” strategy it alleges to be illegal. By using cash (or stock) generated from the high-margin exploitation of personal data, it is possible to remove a potential competitor via acquisition. If acquiring a competitor doesn’t work, then the company can simply crush the competition by denying it the data necessary to compete with a copycat service built on the incumbent’s data hoard. The opening advantage in the metaverse will go to those with the data to make the new virtual activities relevant to the user. The result is no different from the present online world in which those with the data hoard it to control the market.

Insofar as the dissemination of hate and lies, tech journalist Casey Newton’s interview with Mark Zuckerberg about his metaverse vision was revealing. Newton asked, “Who gets to augment reality?” He imagined “a world where we’re all wearing our headsets, and we’re looking at the U.S. Capitol building…most of us have an overlay that says, ‘This is the building where Congress works’…[but] some people might see an overlay that says, ‘on January 6, 2021, our glorious revolution began.’” Zuckerberg responded that this “is one of the central questions of our time.” “In order to have a cohesive society,” he explained, “you want to have a shared foundation of values and some understanding of the world and the problems we all face together.”

The current iteration of Facebook with its algorithms to promote engagement-driven revenue fall far from that goal. Instead of a “shared foundation” that brings us together, the way the Facebook algorithms are programmed does just the opposite. Since maximizing user time on the site maximizes the number of advertisements that can be sold, the algorithms are programmed to maximize engagement. This means the algorithms send to each user news that is in line with their pre-established views, not news that creates a “shared foundation.” Even worse, is that one of the best ways to hold engagement is to create conflict and outrage, regardless of the veracity of the claim.

Which brings us back to standards. The development of government-overseen behavioral standards protected consumer, workers, and competition in the industrial revolution—while simultaneously enabling a vibrant and growing economy. The digital revolution requires similar government-overseen standards. It is good that Facebook is discussing behavioral standards for the metaverse, but it is not sufficient. We must not be distracted by the shiny new metaverse and forget that we have yet to resolve the challenges in the current online universe—problems that will simply metastasize into the metaverse if we don’t deal with them now.

Facebook is a general, unrestricted donor to the Brookings Institution. The findings, interpretations, and conclusions posted in this piece are solely those of the author and not influenced by any donation.