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Facebook becomes Meta as Mark Zuckerberg tries to run the metaverse. Why that's unlikely.

The idea of the metaverse is changing before our eyes based on innovations from disrupters. Facebook is no longer one of them.

There’s nothing that Silicon Valley loves more than the next big thing, and after years of murmurs, the next big thing has suddenly become the metaverse, which big tech is calling the next generation of the internet. The metaverse is a catch-all term for a connected set of immersive virtual experiences that you explore online via your three-dimensional avatar, a character on the screen that may or may not resemble what you look like in the real world.

Facebook is still operating on an old and soon to be outdated conception of what the future will be.

Unlike the World Wide Web, which consists of flat, two-dimensional pages that we access via browsers, the metaverse would be more like a video game where each destination is a three-dimensional space. The metaverse is often associated with using virtual reality (VR) headsets, like that depicted in the 2018 blockbuster “Ready Player One,” to immerse yourself in a digital world.

The chorus of big tech chief executives who say their companies will help build the metaverse include the heads of Epic, makers of the wildly popular video game Fortnite, Nvidia, the leader in chips that facilitate graphic displays, and even industry stalwart Microsoft.

But no one has stepped up to the plate like Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerburg. First, Zuck announced that his business was going to become a metaverse company. Recently, Facebook said it has plans to hire 10,000 engineers in Europe to build the metaverse. And just Thursday, Facebook announced that its company name going forward will be Meta to reflect its focus on being a metaverse company.

Some suspect that Zuckerburg’s metaverse obsession is just a way to distract from all the negative news coming out about Facebook. But those in geekdom know that his obsession isn’t entirely new: He’s been talking about it at least since the social media giant purchased Oculus, the first consumer VR headset company, for $2 billion almost a decade ago.

Zuckerburg clearly wants to become the dominant on-ramp to the next generation of the internet, an “embodied internet” in which we don’t just passively browse by looking at screens on our phones and computers, but which we explore with our avatars akin to the way you might visit an actual place.

Facebook is betting big that the metaverse will be accessed through virtual reality headsets, like Facebook’s own Oculus Quest. Facebook is also betting that lighter-weight augmented reality (AR) glasses, like the ones that Facebook is releasing in conjunction with Ray-Ban, will allow the metaverse to move beyond the computer, making it appear that virtual objects are in the world around us.

This would allow Facebook to get around the gatekeepers that dominate the on-ramps for our current web-based internet, which is increasingly accessed through mobile devices controlled by Apple and Google. (I own stock in Google, Facebook and Microsoft.)

It’s not surprising that Silicon Valley, an industry obsessed with turning science fiction into reality, has turned its sights on the metaverse and is using video game technology like headsets as a jumping off point. Video games are more popular than ever (the size of the video game industry in 2020 was expected to reach almost $180 billion, bigger than Hollywood’s box office), and a whole new generation is becoming comfortable with representing themselves as avatars online in games and virtual environments like Fortnite, Roblox, Minecraft and League of Legends, which boast hundreds of millions of players every month.

But those chasing the metaverse, particularly Facebook, may well be using the wrong imaginary — a term for how a vision from science fiction inspires real life — and as a result could end up missing the boat. The idea of the metaverse is manifesting and changing before our eyes based on innovations and disruptions that weren’t anticipated even a few years ago, and the idea that the mega-tech companies of today can define the terms of that is unlikely.

In the past, major disruptive technologies — like Facebook — have left existing industry leaders scrambling to catch up. When the web became big, for example, Microsoft, a company that led in desktop operating systems and applications, tried hard to become the on-ramp of the internet. It fought to kill off the popular web browser startup, Netscape (which it did), but it was a pyrrhic victory at best as new native web companies like Google became dominant instead.

Similarly, the metaverse is evolving today before our eyes, and while virtual reality and augmented reality will certainly be a part of what emerges, they may not even be the most important part.

For one thing, virtual reality headsets haven’t caught on nearly as quickly as most of us thought they would. And in the original concept — coined by science fiction writer Neal Stephenson in his classic cyberpunk novel “Snow Crash” way back in 1992 — the metaverse was much more dispersed, and constructed and managed via standards. That makes it not unlike how the internet and the web have been built, rather than being dominated by only one company or group.

One of the interesting aspects of Stephenson’s metaverse that still holds sway is that there need to be multiple ways to access it, adapting to your connection speed, device and user interface — mobile, desktop computer or headset.

And as we’ve seen in the past, it is usually innovative startups whose disruptions fuel new technology waves. The metaverse will likely be no different. In fact, there is already another set of innovations that are defining the metaverse, and these all have to do with portability and accessibility.

These include portable digital identity (think avatars that don’t belong to any one video game and can instead be used on any website or virtual world); ownership of digital goods (think objects you can put on your avatars like virtual clothes and sneakers); and digital property (think of owning a piece of a virtual map like that inside video games).

These last two are starting to be implemented through blockchains, which are used to keep track of transactions for cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum (both of which I own). A recent innovation on the blockchain are NFTs, or nonfungible tokens, which allow for a way to record who owns what in the virtual world, and allows those objects to be portable without requiring one big player like Facebook or Fortnite or Roblox.

Everyone from Reese Witherspoon to the NFL to Gucci are experimenting with creating NFTs for the metaverse generation. Who owns the blockchains that keep track of these NFTs? No one; they are managed in a decentralized way across thousands of computers.

So while there are many in Silicon Valley and beyond who worry, given Facebook’s record with social networks, that it will “take over the metaverse,” I would argue that Facebook is still operating on an old and soon to be outdated conception of what the future will be.

Innovation and disruption are the real forces that will drive the metaverse, and this tends to advantage new players, not old ones trying to bring dated visions of the future to life. To paraphrase Yogi Berra, if we have learned one thing from the technology waves of the past, it’s that when the future arrives, it’s rarely what it used to be.