Apologies for the headline I'm trying to fix it
There’s not much new to say because little actually happened. Facebook changed its company name. Most company names are awful. I mean, Facebook — I understand its origin has to do with college face books — is a profoundly ridiculous name in its own right. But all company names are ridiculous and you just learn to live with it (Remember in 2006 when everyone was running around saying how silly it was to send a ‘tweet’ and then our last president used the service to deny the results of a presidential election and nobody was like, ‘what a silly name…Twitter!’).
Anyhow, very little happened yesterday and yet I’m steamed. Like, actually filled with frustrated anger to the point that I am a bit embarrassed about it. What really broke me was this video:
Before I really get into being Mad Online, I want to note that this video has some real ‘Not Actual In-Game Footage’ vibes to it. Here is what yesterday’s metaverse promo looks like:
Here’s what the current, playable Facebook metaverse looks like (nobody has legs):
Kind of reminds me of Magic Leap’s famous whale demo. It created incredible hype and it looked like this (holy shit!):
The reality looked like this (an SNES dude throwing a rock at you in your kitchen):
I’m not suggesting that Facebook, with all its money and resources and talent can’t eventually build what they’re rendering graphically. But I’d argue, for now, their version of the metaverse is in the proof of concept phase. This is a hype video.
What really steams my clams though is the tone of the Zuckerberg video. I’ve watched more than my fair share of tech product launch videos and many of them thread some version of this needle. Everyone speaks in a very sterilized, Pleasantville-style. Tech Disneyland. Every single person in the video/presentation is having a Great Day™. Importantly, everyone is Very Busy. In the video Zuckerberg is switching from meetings to impromptu poker games to video calls (with an employee; with his wife). Life in the metaverse is dynamic — just the right balance of getting shit done and having fun! And everything looks so goddamn cool because — instead of a conference room you get to listen to your coworkers deliver reports on the status of their sales accounts IN A MAGIC FOREST WHERE KOI FISH CAN JUMP OUT OF THE RIVER AND FLY.
What I find most galling about this is the dissonance between Facebook’s portrayal of using Facebook products and the way people use Facebook products. As Motherboard’s Jason Koebler pointed out in a cathartic piece, here’s what was going on actual Facebook as Zuckerberg outlined the glories of his new digital universe:
Facebook’s algorithm, meanwhile, was recommending that users also watch a Latina woman dominate and lick the stomach of a little person (11,000 viewers); it also recommended people watch a video game livestream pitched with a thumbnail of two CGI men fucking each other (4,000 viewers).
My former colleague Katie Notopoulos wrote a piece about Apple’s product launch events that I will never forget, called, The End Of Apple Man. The piece brilliantly points out the difference between the way Apple presents its new gadgets (and the demographics they’re marketed to) versus the reality of how actual humans use them. I have to quote this paragraph in full:
Apple Man is a fortysomething dad who just wants to FaceTime his adorable children while he’s on a business trip, and also find a local pourover coffee shop while he’s in town. Apple Man has an Apple Watch (obvious). He needs a way to manage his photos of his adorable children and hiking trips with friends. He loves jogging and mountain biking and wants to use his Apple Watch to monitor his workouts, because he LOVES working out. Apple Man is very fit for his age — you can just barely tell he’s totally ripped through his light blue, off-the-rack, wrinkle-free, button-down shirt. Apple Man has a great head of hair. Apple Man owns his home and wants to be able to open his garage door from his phone to park his family-sensible-yet-sporty-crossover. (He's on the Tesla Model 3 preorder list.) He wants to make brunch plans, and it would be great if he could add a brunch plan to his calendar app directly from text messages. Apple Man wants to track his health, but of course he has no need for a period tracker. His calendar is full; his inbox is zero.
All marketing is idealized but the Big Tech marketing takes this to the extreme. The reality is that large swaths of iPhone users (like Facebook users) are unglamorous people. They are pecking at their phones using reading glasses to read the extra large font and making typos while ranting about politics on a comment thread below pictures of a Fourth of July barbeque. They’re getting shitfaced in a bar and dropping their phone on the bathroom floor and having the screen shatter and saying, ‘fuck it, I’ll just keep it cracked.’ They’re on FaceTime yelling at their siblings over the sound of their crying children in the background. They’re eating fries and stress scrolling and getting grease on the screen, trying to text through the smear. The real use of a technology, once it’s fully embedded in our lives, is messy. And that’s because life is messy. Most people aren’t thriving like Apple Man or MetaZuck. They’re surviving. Their phones are tools to get through the slog and…I dunno…watch a TikTok or two that makes you chuckle.
Normally, the gap between the tech marketing and the reality of the product wouldn’t bother me this much. But right now, it does. I wrote this week already about the deluge of shitty Facebook news. It’s been a week of grim revelations (that the company suggests are overblown) about the ways that Facebook is a destabilizing force in many peoples’ lives. Some of the stories — especially the ones outside the U.S. — are extremely upsetting. They suggest the company knows what a malignant force it is in certain areas of the world and yet it doesn’t do enough to stop it because it has different (growth and financial) goals. This is a headline from this week:
And that’s why I find the Pleasantville tone so galling. With all that the company knows about the ways that its current products act (in unexpected and sometimes horrific ways) and all that the public knows about it…it feels like a slap in the face to debut something new and, frankly experimental, in such a sunny, oblivious way. It reads to me like a declaration that the company can and will act with impunity. Here’s a company marching forward and optimistically into the future and ignoring the smoldering mess it made in the background. I found Facebook’s social accounts especially hard to deal with in this regard. Behold…whatever the hell this is:
Which brings me to my last point. My friend Casey Newton had an observation in his Platformer newsletter on Thursday:
It struck me, given the recent conversation around how old and out of touch Facebook has been lately, how strong the Boomer vibes were coming from those reacting to Thursday’s presentation. A surprising number of people seem to think that technological progress ended with the smartphone, and that augmented reality, virtual reality, and connected experiences between platforms will never come to pass.
I wouldn’t take that bet. Not with Apple, Microsoft, Snap, Epic, Roblox, Niantic, and others already at work building it out. Eager to demonstrate that it can innovate, Facebook — er, Meta — has been among the industry leaders in its willingness to build in public. But the company is not building alone.
Honestly, Casey is right that it’s not a good bet. People are going to build stuff — stuff that plenty of people roll their eyes at. And some of those things might really catch on. Obviously, technological innovation hasn’t stopped with the smartphone and it’s probably a good idea for anyone who writes about technology to be humble about what is and what isn’t a legitimate vision of the future.
But where I disagree is the conflation of (what I see as extremely legitimate) frustration and anger toward a company/industry and their innovation processes and an aversion to innovation altogether. Even though I’m not psyched on it, personally, I don’t think the metaverse is necessarily an offensive idea. I imagine that people will build things in this general realm that I find somewhat exciting, even if they’re not geared toward me (I’ve never been that interested in virtual or augmented reality but that’s a me issue!). I also imagine people will make things that I find appalling. My mind is (somewhat) open. Even if I make snarky jokes on Twitter.
What I don’t quite have an open mind about is having a company like Facebook dictate the terms of new technologies (especially ones that might dominate the next iteration of the internet) while their old ones are riddled with societally destabilizing flaws. Here, I am skeptical. Just as I’d be skeptical of Climate Solutions, Brought To You By Exxon…even though I’d love to have a habitable planet in 50 years.
This is a niche tech writer frustration, probably. I write a lot about technology and interact with a lot of people in tech and I feel like I often have to assure people that I enjoy new things and am not merely a miserable technophobe. And I do enjoy things. I like innovation and admire people who build cool shit thoughtfully! I wouldn’t spend all my time writing about this world if I didn’t care about it and what it creates. I often feel on my heels, trying to not seem ‘unreasonable’ about my tech criticisms. Part of the reason I feel this way is because I’m falling for a tactic deployed by the people I tend to criticize. They try to paint people who are justifiably frustrated and angry as luddites because they would like some accountability for the current messes before starting new projects.
We would do well not to fall into this trap. It is rational to be skeptical of new frontiers in innovation — not because you reflexively hate progress or think that the world ought to be frozen in amber here in 2021 (ew) — because we are drowning in evidence of what happens when we let people with narrow, hastily deployed visions of a technological future impose their visions on the rest of us. I’m not skeptical of the metaverse because I think it’s improbable. I’m skeptical because I think that a lot of people with the money, power, and impunity to build it are not going to be cowed by any legitimate criticisms. There’s a reason why I care about what happened on Thursday and why I completely ignored Magic Leap. It has to do with power.
I hope we can resist the urge to reduce conversations about the future of the internet down to Luddite vs. Expanding Brain Futurist. It’s a binary that serves few interests except of those who already have the power and means to create these new frontiers in their image. Flattening the conversation in this way almost ensures that our future technologies are designed by a select few — many of the same people that are in charge right now. We all know how that’s worked out.