October of last year was a heady time in the tech world. Bitcoin topped $65,000. The NFT market was booming. Tech stocks reached what would turn out to be a major peak. Industry folks said lots of wild things about the future with even more confidence than usual. People did, claimed, and bought some things they maybe regret now in the harsh daylight of 2022.
It was the month that Facebook rebranded as Meta and announced its intention “to bring the metaverse to life and help people connect, find communities, and grow businesses.” Over the weekend, the New York Times checked in on how that was going:
The company’s flagship virtual-reality game, Horizon Worlds, remains buggy and unpopular, leading Meta to put in place a “quality lockdown” for the rest of the year while it retools the app.
Some Meta employees have complained about frequent strategy shifts that seem tied to Mr. Zuckerberg’s whims rather than a cohesive plan.
And Meta executives have butted heads over the company’s metaverse strategy, with one senior leader complaining that the amount of money the company had spent on unproven projects made him “sick to my stomach.”
This came a few days after the Verge published excerpts from internal memos in which Meta’s “VP of Metaverse” wondered why nobody on his teams seemed to be using their VR helmets very much. “Why is that? Why don’t we love the product we’ve built so much that we use it all the time?” he asked. “The simple truth is, if we don’t love it, how can we expect our users to love it?”
On Tuesday, Meta shared its own status report in the form of its annual developer conference, Connect. The company highlighted the “incredible success of Meta Quest 2,” its last VR headset, and announced a new, high-end virtual-and-mixed-reality headset priced at $1,499.99. It outlined the ways in which it was “making the metaverse a reality,” including the “next generation of Meta Avatars that will be more expressive and detailed,” a set of fitness accessories to make “exercising in VR an even better experience,” including “wrist straps and adjustable knuckle straps, plus a facial interface you can easily wipe down after working out” and “a way for you to take videos in [Meta Horizon] Worlds and easily share them to Instagram as a Reel.” The company also announced legs:
In Mark Zuckerberg’s defense, he said from the start that the metaverse was obviously “still a ways off” and, in an interview with the Verge this week, admitted that the long-term nature of his bet “sets up for a trough of disillusionment.” It’s either a complete disaster or all going to plan, or a bit of both. From the outside, in the context of a somewhat humbled Meta, and a general cooling-down of rhetoric about the metaverse elsewhere, the situation is less pressing and more purely weird than it was a year ago. Legs are coming soon! Marvelous.
Well, not so fast. While the tech industry and popular press have become less annoyingly insistent that you understand and get ready for the metaverse, and it might seem that you can put it out of mind until it either shows up or doesn’t, whatever it is, Zuckerberg’s presentation gestured at another meta-structure that isn’t just inevitable but already here — one that’s all-encompassing and similarly focused on its own perpetuation and the success of the larger firm. I’m talking, of course, about management.
Visible public chatter about the metaverse has calmed down a bit; in the middle-upper tiers of LinkedIn, in boardrooms and board-Zooms across the country, and at reconvening business conferences around the world, however, the metaverse is still very much just around the corner, and everyone is desperate not to be late. According to Bloomberg, “Disney, P&G, LVMH, and other big names have invested in chief metaverse officers to plot a course through the next chapter of the internet.” Publicis Groupe SA, the advertising firm, “appointed” a lion character named “Leon Avatar” as its CM(eta)O and, more important, revealed that it has more than 1,000 employees working on metaverse projects for its clients. McKinsey is out there telling your boss, and your boss’s boss, that metaverse spending could reach $5 trillion by 2030.
A casual observer who hears about the metaverse might wonder, “What’s that?” or “Do I need to care?” If they’re interested in VR, gaming, virtual worlds, or crypto in a personal capacity, they can look into it. Lots of stuff going on! A certain sort of boss, however, is perpetually paranoid about missing out on the next big thing in business, and in any even vaguely tech-adjacent industry, the metaverse still beckons. Management-oriented writing about and coverage of the metaverse — venture capitalist Matthew Ball has become boss-famous for his perceptive but bullish essays on the subject — cultivates a dangerous form of the fear of missing out, manager FOMO, which has the potential to create actual demand for metaverse-related strategy, plans, and solutions from the top down. Or at least from the middle.
Much of Zuckerberg’s meandering keynote made more sense if you imagined an audience of bosses or people trying to figure out what to tell their bosses. He announced a partnership with Accenture, a company with high name recognition among bosses and virtually none with anyone else:
According to Meta, the massive consulting and professional-services firm will “help companies use VR to transform the way they engage employees, interact with customers, or create products and services in the metaverse.” In service of creating “a unified, digital office we think can make distributed work so much better,” Zuckerberg announced a broad partnership with Microsoft — including an “immersive meeting experience” with Microsoft Teams, which, in a major crossover event, will be compatible with Meta’s own virtual-meetings product, Horizon Workrooms.
Zuckerberg also announced some new additions to his metaverse, courtesy of Microsoft: Word, Excel, and PowerPoint.
One could make the case that this is simply a savvy strategy to diversify Meta’s business away from its core social-media platforms and one that it has been executing for a while: Hundreds of thousands of Walmart employees enjoyed perhaps their first-ever experiences with VR courtesy of their managers, who asked them to strap on an Oculus to watch training videos in break rooms across the country. Meta’s new partner, Microsoft, spent the last decade shifting its focus from consumer products to a lucrative enterprise business, recording record profits in the process.
Understanding the metaverse as a set of software tools that you might be told to use, like expense software or a videoconferencing platform or a task-management suite, isn’t especially exciting, but at least it makes sense. Conscripting millions of people into a new “social software” solution by leveraging C-suite anxieties about age, technology, and what the kids are doing in Roblox all day would be an impressive maneuver if Meta could pull it off; not that it’s clear they can — just because Meta is making a pitch to managers doesn’t mean it’s a good pitch. (Although, skeptical managers, if you’re reading this and feeling secure in your own good judgement and resistance to industry groupthink, consider this: Are you sure you know how your manager feels about meetings in VR? Or, for that matter, theirs?)
But it feels like there’s something more personal and risky going on here. The back half of Zuckerberg’s keynote contained multiple expressions of gratitude to his boss peers for their “partnership” and included an incredibly boss-brained but sort of poignant feature intended to solve a problem with which any Zoom-era white-collar manager can empathize: checked-out employees turning off their webcams in meetings. “We’re also bringing avatars to video chat,” Zuckerberg said. “I think avatars in video chat are going to be like this third mode between video on and video off. You can still express yourself and react, but you’re not on-camera, so it’s kind of like a better camera-off mode.” From one boss to another: You are seen; you are valid.
Meta’s Metaverse isn’t just externally boss-facing, though. According to the report from the Times:
In a May poll of 1,000 Meta employees conducted by Blind, an anonymous professional social network, only 58 percent said they understood the company’s metaverse strategy. Employees have also grumbled about the high turnover and frequent shuffling of employees as Mr. Zuckerberg’s priorities change. Inside Meta, two employees said, some workers now jokingly refer to key metaverse projects as M.M.H., an acronym for “make Mark happy.”
What is the future of the internet, of digital connection, of our relationships to virtual and physical worlds? At Meta, and soon in other offices around the world, maybe the metaverse question is less theoretical. Here are some more relevant ones: Who’s your Mark? And is he happy?