So, Facebook is changing its name to "Meta," because their main project is now building the "metaverse" – something like a worldwide virtual economy, social ecosystem and habitable realm which is perhaps more likenable to the World Wide Web than to anything else, but is not the World Wide Web.
This week's Facebook Connect presentation contained almost no real technology demos. It was basically an hour-long feature film depending heavily on chroma keying real staff members onto pre-rendered environments, and the sort of 3D animation which reminds me of a cross between yesterday's cutting-edge (e.g. Toy Story) and today's kitschier YouTube ads or Netflix kids' shows. To their credit, Zuckerberg conceded at the start that this was largely just a vision, but a vision they felt important to open up about.
I was baffled about why. More of the usual attempts to distract from the company's core problems? One Twitter neighbour suggested they were after generating investments, and… maybe? Does Facebook lack capital?
In my mind, Facebook's main issue is still its reputation as a company that has become one of the world's main tech brands while stereotypically adolescent about its principles, ethically and otherwise (no offense to actual adolescents). Once again, Mark Zuckerberg mentioned privacy more than once, and once again, gave no indication that this meant users would have any particular knowledge, let alone control, of how their personal data is used or shared by them. I'm no longer really sure what people think and feel who are both aware of this situation, but resign themselves to it. My best guess is formed by recalling how I felt when I was first learning about the rise of user trackability alongside the web's own adolescence, feeling the inescapability of it, and extrapolating that apathy single-dimensionally into something that overwhelmed me into living with it. I wouldn't instantly forget about it, but it would fade into the background, contributing to the tone of a permanently darker future something better than which I might have convinced myself to refrain from imagining. This is what seemingly would have happened worldwide if other figures and companies had not done some stepping-up of their own in this area, leaving Facebook to spend years all but lashing out defensively for being uninterested in following suit.
If Facebook does intend to improve on this, it would be smart to show off and explain the technology that does it – but no, nothing.
In a way, the fantastical presentation reminded me of something much older: a promo video for NewTek's "Video Toaster" for the Amiga in 1991 – a set of hardware and software tools that made professional-looking video production (for the time) available to the average computer enthusiast. It was glitzy, alluring, wow-inducing, futuristic, and presented along those lines. And though it was real technology, I knew I wasn't yet in a position to get my hands on it. But unlike Facebook's metaverse presentation – though the metaverse's promises are far vaster and more futuristic – I actually felt something when I watched the Video Toaster reel. I watched it over and over, and I doubt I'll ever watch Facebook's presentation again. I'm not really sure what I'm trying to say with this paragraph; I think I'm just trying to illustrate that these deeper problems with Facebook feel like they seep all the way through to their marketing.
Facebook just feels like "a company." Or, to evoke the connotations I think I feel, "a corporation." Mark said he "believes" people are on this planet "to create," but I don't find myself believing he believes that. Facebook seems to want to make money. I think it has people who are enthused by the future of technology, but collectively the thinking feels ironically short-term and perpetually untempered by wisdom. That's the feeling Facebook has spent its years earning.
Newtek really did seem to be about massively facilitating creativity. Nintendo has always seemed to be about bringing high-quality, fun video game ideas and worlds to everyone. Apple really does seem like it knows its attested place at the intersection of technology and the liberal arts, and that it does strive to improve the world.
Facebook? "Oh, this is cool." "Oh, look what we can do," over and over. That's great – all those other companies have those moments every day too, no doubt – but at the end of the broader arcs, will they have left something truly wonderful to look back on with satisfaction, or just the remnants of a mess?