Over the last two years, Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg has poured millions of dollars into his immersive metaverse project, which he believes represents the future of digital technology. We’ve seen ad campaigns for the Meta virtual reality headsets, a total rebranding of Zuckerberg’s company, and an unquestioned optimism about the efficacy and popularity of online life.
But the company Meta is losing money. Lots of it.
Zuckerberg pledged to spend $10 billion a year towards the metaverse over the next decade, showing how committed he is to achieving his vision. The company, however, plummeted this past year, losing approximately $600 billion of its market value. People simply aren’t investing in it as Zuckerberg anticipated, and even certain Meta executives doubt the product. James Ball writes,
“Who wants to wear a clunky virtual reality headset, watching outdated graphics that induce nausea? In a world where most of us use the internet via our mobile phones, can this really be the future? The figures suggest not: Meta expected 500,000 active monthly users on its VR platform, Horizon Worlds (which is accessed by VR headsets), by the end of this year; the current figure is fewer than 200,000. Leaked internal documents show that most of those who visit Horizon tend not to return after the first month. Meta staff themselves are reportedly unsure of the product: ‘The simple truth is, if we don’t love it, how can we expect our users to love it?’ wrote Meta’s metaverse vice-president Vishal Shah in a memo last month.”James Ball, Zuckerberg’s empire collapses | The Spectator
So, the metaverse has shown to be a financial disaster thus far. Perhaps part of the reason involves the poor quality of the product, but it’s worth asking if the metaverse is actually what people want in the long run. You may remember how eager people were to get “back to normal” after some of the COVID-19 restrictions were lifted. People bought more plane tickets in the summer of 2022 than in the same period in 2019, showing a sort of urgency to start experiencing the world and real life again. Virtual schooling harmed children’s cognitive and social development, and simple observation shows how superior in-person gatherings are to online ones. We weren’t designed to live alone, but that’s what online life has been for many of us—a kind of collective loneliness, where virtual avatars interface but flesh and blood humans never commune.
Zuckerberg’s proposal for a comprehensive online life was ill-timed. Just when people were sick of Zoom calls, virtual offices, and communicating with friends and family solely through smartphones, Zuckerberg came along and said, “Hey guys, want to never need to see real people again? I got just the thing!” It doesn’t surprise me that many of us, technology-saturated as we are, are giving the metaverse a pass right now.
However, the idea of virtual reality clearly appeals to many people. Social media is a light version of the metaverse, as is the internet in general. We “live” much of our lives online. So, what should we do? Boycott Meta? Go cold turkey on all our social media apps?
Rachel Ferguson, professor at Concordia University in Chicago and Associate Scholar at the Acton Institute, writes that instead of rejecting the online world wholesale, we should invest more in friendships. She writes,
A true friend doesn’t simply wish for the good of the other; she acts for the good of the other. She acts not just for her friend’s external good but also for the internal goods of spiritual, emotional, and intellectual growth. This is the friendship that Aristotle conceived of as an end in itself, part and parcel of the well-being of the human person. So perhaps it ought to come as no surprise that such friendships will almost exclusively be embodied, in-real-life, three-dimensional relationships. We humans are, after all, embodied beings.”Rachel Ferguson, Friendship in the Age of Facebook | Acton Institute
Meta may well continue to fail because more and more people are waking up to their need for genuine friendship and community. If Zuckerberg fails to wake up, he will keep losing big.