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Article

Getting Versed in the Metaverse

In an hour-long video released in October 2021, Mark Zuckerberg expounded about what the rebrand of Facebook Inc. envisioned for the Internet’s future, discussing innovative ideas and concepts in the realms of entertainment, education, business, and—surprisingly—privacy.

CW: references to violence and addiction

In an hour-long video released in October 2021, Mark Zuckerberg expounded about what the rebrand of Facebook Inc. envisioned for the Internet’s future, discussing innovative ideas and concepts in the realms of entertainment, education, business, and—surprisingly—privacy. As the presentation oscillated between Zuckerberg engaging in scripted dialogue with a handful of his team (or as they’re now called, “Metamates”) and green screen magic with animated worlds and enticing avatars, disbelief and distrust blanketed my initial impressions. Given Facebook Inc.’s (now known as Meta) nauseating history—including questionable handling of private information, government elections and influencing its users’ decisions—this video, and by extension, the rebrand, further paints the company as an irresponsible giant that continues to undermine innumerable societal issues.

Meta as it stands

As The Wall Street Journal best defines it, the Metaverse is “a virtual world where our digital avatars and those of people in our communities and around the globe come together to work, shop, attend classes, pursue hobbies, enjoy social gatherings and more.” While this concept came into existence long before Facebook was budding in Zuckerberg’s enterprising mind, the maniacal attempts at making his company synonymous with the Metaverse might actually work. Ofir Turel, a Professor of Information Systems at the University of Melbourne, points out that there are four major factors that give Meta a massive head-start against competitors.

The first factor is Meta’s access to virtually infinite resources. According to Turel, “[i]t is no big deal for Zuckerberg to put $100 million a year into developing the next frontier of the Internet. Most competitors cannot do that.” Additionally, Meta also has a history of acquiring competitors to further monopolise their business. For instance, if you’re in the virtual and augmented reality business right now and have innovated a patentable technology, chances are Meta’s going to look to acquire your business altogether.

Secondly, we have Meta’s enormous customer base. According to Statista, Meta’s apps (Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger) had a whopping 3.58 billion monthly active users in 2021—almost half the planet’s population! So, even if a portion of that is gradually shifted to the Metaverse, that still puts Meta miles ahead of its competitors.

Thirdly, there is economy of scale. A giant like Meta operates on a humongous scale, which brings down the costs they incur for service and storage. For a new business, especially in the digital market, these same costs can often pose a threat to their very existence, effectively shattering any hopes of competing.

Finally, Meta boasts over a decade of experience engaging users with its algorithms. Since their algorithm learns user behaviour most accurately, marketers will always prefer buying information from as well as advertising with them.

Personal challenges of the Metaverse

In the advent of the Metaverse, Turel warns that “[w]hat is potentially damaging is the scale and types of social pressures that you could face when interacting in the Metaverse.” In other words, this new space, gives us the opportunity to broaden the current social cues—such as likes and views—that determine users’ social status. According to Turel, this “could be virtual high-fives, or how many people you meet at a time. The idea is to push you to engage more.”

Troublingly, it is unclear how these companies will look to use variable reward, an element that underlies the addictive behaviour present in the current social media space. As Turel explains, “[t]he rewards you get are not constant and you don’t get them every time. So, sometimes you get a lot of likes on a post and in other cases you’re not going to. And that pushes people to keep on checking.” Contemporary media giants, like Meta, have a terrifyingly accurate perception of its users’ preferences, information which they exploit for advertising revenue. With addictive behaviour amplified in the Metaverse, engagement­—and, therefore, revenue—is maximised.

Additionally, users often measure themselves in terms of how they’re doing socially, and repeatedly engage in behaviours that have previously rewarded them more likes and views. “They just want to improve ad revenues, so if well-being comes in the way, they will easily ignore that; which is what they’ve done so far,” says Turel. So, regardless of how the variable reward system is implemented in the Metaverse, these companies will gain more control over its users’ sense of self-worth.

Another concern is how the Metaverse could affect children. As a way of expanding the market, social media sites like Facebook have previously attempted to develop separate platforms for children. With the Metaverse, this could take the form of “safe, magical” worlds, where children can walk around and interact with their favourite fictional characters, or engage with other kids. The danger of this is that children do not have the same self-control mechanisms as adults, potentially endangering their mental and physical wellbeing. While parents could limit usage, this exposure could possibly seed a sense of social anxiety greater than what we have with social media, drawing children towards this virtual world with increasing dependency as they grow up.

Global challenges of the Metaverse

Meta has shown time and again that it cannot be trusted with leading the social media space. For instance, Meta had a “Whitelist” or “cross-checking” feature, which exempted influencers from the company’s policies altogether. This feature was intended to prevent investigative and awareness posts, which were made by journalists and non-profits, from being removed by the algorithm. In the end, however, this feature empowered a handful of influential people, giving them immunity from consequence altogether. According to a WSJ investigation, in 2019 alone, there were 16 billion views on content that was against company policies.

While the company has released a statement saying that they’re effectively removing the Whitelist feature as of October 2021, the problem lies in Meta’s distribution of moderation (i.e. security) investment across the world. According to a VICE News investigation, 90% of Facebook users are outside of USA. Despite this, however, the company spends 90% of its moderation budget in the USA, which has dire consequences. For example, in early 2021, Global Witness launched an investigation into Facebook’s involvement in the growing violence in Myanmar; unsurprisingly, they discovered that Facebook’s recommendation algorithm was promoting pages that violated the company’s own policies.

The preference system, whereby the algorithm learns from and recommends users posts or pages that they may like, is an integral part of how the social platform works, and the intention behind this is not necessarily sinister. Nevertheless, because of Meta’s failure to address these policy violations on time, the world burns quicker. This isn’t to say that the company is solely to blame for widespread hate and violence, but one can only imagine what could happen with Meta leading us into the Metaverse age.

What lies ahead

Let’s consider a future where Meta has won the Metaverse race, and we have Zuckerberg at the helm of this new iteration of the Internet. In this future, the big question still remains: what can be done do to ensure that Meta remains accountable for its endeavours? While there is an air of uncertainty around exactly what it would take for Meta to rethink its “maximise revenue, ignore everything else” business model, Turel says that there are thr­­­­ee possible ways that Meta’s reign could be threatened. First of all, there needs to be a major public outcry, demanding Meta to monitor the well-being of its users; secondly, there is regulation by the US Congress, or locally by the EU or other countries; and finally, a competitor emerges that produces a platform that is better-delivering and focuses on the well-being of its users.

However, as we return from exploring this nauseatingly uncertain and dangerous future, we must remind ourselves that we are assuming the Metaverse will actually take off. Even avid supporters of Metaverse admit that this concept is not going to be realised in the next 5–10 years, and companies and start-ups need to make significant upgrades to existing technology to achieve a true sense of immersion.

There’s also the question of affordability and accessibility. If the costs are insurmountably high, Meta will not even convert a fraction of its 3.58 billion users into the Metaverse, and while the company’s apps continue to bring in new users, the recent decline in Facebook daily users has indicated that the app’s user reach has peaked. In fact, this decline has been a key factor in Meta losing over $230 billion in market value on the 27th of January, setting a record for the biggest one-day loss by a US company. Additionally, as the company’s head himself has acknowledged, Meta now faces competition from a fast-rising contender for user engagement: TikTok.

What it all comes down to

Metaverse or not, as of right now, Meta is the leader in the social media space. With no regulation, and without sufficient pressure on redistributing its moderation investments, the company is bound to make many more missteps along the way. With each misstep, we risk worsening societal problems across the world.

As the world takes a step forward into the Metaverse, it is important to keep in mind the following question  Belgian politician Guy Verhofstadt posed to Zuckerberg during his EU testimony: “You have to ask yourself how you will be remembered—as one of the of the three big giants, along with Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates, who have enriched our world and our societies? Or a genius who created a digital monster that is destroying democracies and our societies altogether?”

 
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