Week in Media: Zuckerberg needs to prove this isn’t Meta BS
If Facebook can’t even sort out its current problems, what hope is there really for the metaverse vision, asks the editor.
So it’s official. From 1 December, Facebook will be renamed Meta Platforms. While the apps will still be known as Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger, we’re led to believe that the Artist Formerly Known as Facebook will become so much more than social media.
The metaverse, Mark Zuckerberg explained in a video presentation last night, is about connecting people via virtual reality, whether at work or for socialising.
Or rather, connecting very rich people with VR, given all the expensive kit and software you’re going to have to buy to be part of this imagined Silicon Valley utopia in which one never has to leave the house again.
Go to the pub? Nah, let’s stay home, put on our Quest headsets, and build virtual “Horizon Worlds” together!
Go to the office? Why bother, when we can telecommute every day with our Nazare AR glasses?
It’s actually telling how blinkered and removed from reality Zuckerberg has become that this is his grand vision of what’s next for his beleaguered business.
So big and yet so small
The metaverse, as he explained it, somehow manages to be too ambitious and not ambitious enough at the same time.
Frankly, Facebook has failed to convince with any of its hardware launches: few people want its Portal smart display, it has quietly ditched the Oculus VR headset as part of this Meta rebrand, and if you can remember the Facebook phone you’re likely in a distinct minority.
So excuse me if I’m sceptical that Quest or Nasare are set to be sure winners, even if there is the demand for such a radical integration of tech in our everyday lives.
But why isn’t there more to the vision than faffing around in a computer game, making your avatar realistic or making home-working a bit less crap?
For a digital media business, it was disappointing to not see more discussion of how TV, movies, podcasts, or music could be transformed by innovative VR and mixed-reality experiences. Zuckerberg said you would be able to “bring things from the physical world into the metaverse” and screens would all become holograms in the future.
But what about interacting with the content itself in new and interesting ways? Where’s my opportunity to star in the new Ghostbusters movie or to build my own Friends reboot starring Hulk Hogan and Oscar the Grouch?
And here’s where I suspect I’ve fallen into the trap by taking this all at face value.
Zuckerberg actually gave the game away in the first part of his presentation explaining the Meta rebrand, when he said: “Our apps and our brands, they’re not changing either.”
Well that’s the fundamental problem isn’t it?
All the scandals that have surrounded Facebook in recent years are characterised by Zuckerberg’s inability or refusal to change. At its heart, Facebook remains an advertising-funded attention machine, powered by algorithms that are designed to keep you on Facebook.
Leaked documents by former employee Frances Haugen have shown how a change to the algorithm on Facebook’s news feed led to more sharing of divisive content and misinformation.
It’s what we all know and talk about privately in this industry, but very few advertisers will say anything publicly because there’s no hope that a weak and erratic US government, led by a precipitously unpopular president, will regulate or break-up Facebook.
So instead, we’re forced to take this rebrand and this metaverse concept seriously because Facebook will remain a monopoly social media platform and Zuckerberg isn’t going anywhere.
‘Privacy-enhancing tech’ is coming to Facebook
Despite all of this noise, I remain hopeful that Facebook is making meaningful strides over user privacy. Earlier this year, I attended a workshop in which senior developers discussed ideas they were working on for “privacy enhancing technologies”, some of which is outlined in this blog post from April.
Since then, I’ve very recently been made aware that Facebook is now looking at anonymising advertisers’ first-party data in such a way that it can no longer be connected to individuals. Facebook seems to be moving to a more predictive and modelled approach to ‘matching’ against users, which should limit how personal data is sent to and from Facebook.
This is important because it would seem that the days of brands uploading a database and asking Facebook to find lookalike audiences are numbered. Or perhaps, you can still do that but have to take Facebook’s word for it, as you already do for self-reported user behaviour.
Whatever Facebook decides to do, a spokesperson insisted that no announcement is imminent: “it’s still very early days on this work and it would be inaccurate to say otherwise”.
Wayne Blodwell, CEO of The Programmatic Advisory, told me that the challenge will then be how open Facebook is with its modelling approach.
“Can advertisers truly trust Facebook to be accurate (especially given previous faux pas)?” he said. “It’ll be interesting to see how Facebook navigates that.”
He added: “Giving people better choice, rather than hovering it all up and telling them later, over how their data is used for ads is a step forward – even the savviest of users will struggle to tell you exactly how their data is used on Facebook. Plus, if users can control which types of ads they want to see, it can create increased demand from advertisers which will drive up CPMs, offsetting the highly-likely loss of segment scale.”
I mention this because there is a lot going on a Facebook behind the scenes. As I’ve written before, there is so much talent sitting within this company that should be given more opportunities to build a better company from within. I know many of them in the UK, and it’s a testament to how strong the UK commercial talent pool is that Nicola Mendelsohn was chosen to replace Carolyn Everson as the Global Business Group head.
And it’s vitally important that advertisers and their agencies don’t get distracted by Meta Platforms, metaverses and other metagames that Zuckerberg may be playing.
Advertisers are the ones funding all of this and should demand more detail about how it intends to make ad measurement more transparent, how it intends to make its alogrithms safer for users, and how it intends to reduce online harms for young and vulnerable users.
If Zuckerberg can show competence in dealing with all the problems he has right now, then maybe we can begin to trust that his vision is more than a distraction technique.