Facebook's Pivot to Meta

Plus: A defense of Breezewood. Yes, that Breezewood.

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1. Stratechery

I am . . . skeptical of Facebook renaming itself “Meta” as a sign that it is going to orient the company principally toward the metaverse future.

The reason I am skeptical is that I have seen this before.

Back in 2015, Facebook launched a “pivot to video.” The idea being that Facebook was about to become primarily a video platform. Facebook shoveled money out the door to make pivot to video happen.

Spoiler: The pivot to video did not happen. What happened instead is that everyone who tried to pivot with Facebook got burned. Bad.

By 2018 the pivot to video was dead and Facebook was pivoting back to what it does very well: Keeping Boomers addicted to the site so that they can sell targeted advertising against their eyeballs.

The dirty secret of Facebook—and Google, too—is that these mega-companies are just advertising platforms. That’s it. Google gets 60 percent of all revenue through search-based text ads—literally the same product that launched the company. (Another 10 percent of the company’s revenue comes from YouTube ads.)

For Facebook, that number is 98 percent. That’s right: 98 cents of every dollar Facebook earns comes from advertising.

That’s the entire business.

Also: We’ve seen the metaverse before. It used to be called Second Life. I wrote about it back in 2007 when the whole world was buzzing about it. Real world companies were spending money to establish their Second Life presence! There were Second Life millionaires who became real-world millionaires with their virtual currency!

But Second Life petered out. Not for lack of trying, though. Lots of people tried Second Life. Very few people bothered coming back for thirds.

And in a very real way, we already have a metaverse. That’s what the internet is, by its nature. It’s a parallel reality where you can buy things, watch things, make things—where you can have a personality and identity entirely apart from your meat-space life. On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.

Which is practically the definition of a metaverse.

Mark Zuckerberg seems to think that the metaverse he’s building will be like the Oasis in Ready Player One and that he’ll own it. This future seems . . . unlikely.

Look how long it has taken to roll out 5G. We’re half a decade in and for most people 5G is still a future technology. Now ask yourself how long it will take for technology to catch up to what would be needed with battery capacity, and AR technology, and all of the rest in order for anything like a Zuckerberg metaverse to materialize. 20 years? 40 years? More?

I’m not even sure Facebook will be able to hold off TikTok and Snap over the next decade, let alone still be a dominant corporation a half century from now.

All of this is preamble to me sharing Ben Thompson’s Stratechery newsletter interview with Zuckerberg.

Thompson is much more bullish on the metaverse, so he’s probably a valuable corrective to my bear view:

Zuckerberg: I think the most important piece here is that the virtual goods and digital economy that’s going to get built out, that that can be interoperable. It’s not just about you build an app or an experience that can work across our headset or someone else’s, I think it’s really important that basically if you have your avatar and your digital clothes and your digital tools and the experiences around that — I think being able to take that to other experiences that other people build, whether it’s on a platform that we’re building or not, is going to be really foundational and will unlock a lot of value if that’s a thing that we can do.

I’ve talked a bunch about how I think that we should design our computing platforms around people rather than apps and I guess that’s sort of what I’m talking about. On phones today, the foundational element is an app, right? That’s the organizing principle for kind of your phone and how you navigate it. But I would hope that in the future, the organizing principle will be you, your identity, your stuff, your digital goods, your connections, and then you’ll be able to pretty seamlessly go between different experiences and different devices on that. I think that building that in upfront is going to be pretty important to maximizing the creative economy around this and making it so that somebody who’s building one of these digital goods or experiences can make it as valuable as possible because it just works across a lot of different things.

Thompson: This idea of organizing around people instead of apps is not a new one that we’ve heard from you in particular. I think this was something that you articulated a lot. When I first started Stratechery, I actually spent a lot of time being fairly critical of Facebook, particularly efforts around building your own phone and your own launcher and things on those lines, in part because I disagreed with this it ought to be organized around people thinking. My view was that the app organization made sense because you wanted your phone to do a whole host of jobs, not all of which were necessarily social and that Facebook was being a little solipsistic and focusing on this particular point of view.

Do you think I was wrong? Do you still hold by your view that phones ought to have gone a different way? Or do you think maybe, “Well, actually the paradigm ended up making sense, but for this next paradigm, it really should be about people this time”? Or should have phones developed differently, in your view, had Facebook had the underlying platform instead of Apple, would we think about the mobile Internet very differently than we do now?

Zuckerberg: I think it would have been a little bit different, but I do think that there’s a big opportunity for it to be quite different going forward, because I think the metaverse is this embodied Internet, where instead of looking at the Internet, you’re in it. So organizing it around your personal experience and your identity in that I think just makes a lot more sense in terms of making it so that you can travel between different experiences and bring your stuff.

There’s the vision way of looking at this, which is the high level abstract version, and then there’s just a lot of specific trade-offs that you make along the way when you’re building out these platforms. One of them that we talked about a little bit in the film is what we’re doing around building Project Cambria, which is the next VR headset that we’re going to release where one of the big new features is around eye-tracking and face-tracking. The reason why we’re putting those in is because we’re really optimizing for social presence, which I think is going to be important across a lot of use cases that we talked about in the film, not just the ones that you would think about as social where you’re hanging out with someone. But eye tracking, it’s really important for, among other things, being able to make eye contact in VR and AR. Face tracking is valuable so that way, you can smile physically and your avatar can smile and it creates a much richer sense of presence. The reality is, is that there’s a real trade-off about including those sensors. In addition to the financial cost of including them, it also makes the device a little bit bigger, maybe it makes it a little thicker. So if you were trying to design the package with the goal of having it be as thin as possible, which other companies might do, then maybe you’d trade that off.

I think that there’s a real intellectual battle, if you will, about what will be the default package of things that is in our VR experience or our AR experience. We’re trying to propose our set of ideas for how we think that’ll go. Of course, if that ends up not being useful to people, then it’ll go in a different direction, but I think that there’s a good chance that it will be, and I think that that will basically just influence, hopefully, the direction that this whole next platform evolves in, not just for the devices that we’re building, but for the ones that other companies build as well.

These decisions about how much the platform is designed around human connection — it’s not just like one thing, right? There are always different decisions in each iteration of the hardware and the software that we’re going to do that I think are going to add up to a picture that could end up looking pretty different over time.

I love Stratechery. Go read the whole thing. It’s very interesting.

But again: My argument would be that the internet is already embodied.

A bunch of people tweet stuff on the internet, and a mob forms outside the Michigan state capital. People post images on Facebook, and we get a genocide in Myanmar. A group talks about pumping Game Stop on Reddit, and the stock market goes haywire.

Making this embodiment literal in the sense that you pretend to walk around in a virtual space, as Zuckerberg hopes, would merely duplicate an existing dynamic. It makes very little sense.

Also, any revenue for Facebook that comes from a metaverse is far, far away. In the meantime, they’ll keep selling ads against the attention span of old people. They will make a lot of money doing this.

And at some point in the future, they’ll probably “pivot” to something else.1

2. The Deleted Scenes

Bulwark contributor Addison Del Mastro has a very engaging newsletter that I really can’t recommend highly enough. Here’s an entry about the weird zoning laws for microbreweries and coffee roaster:

Last month, I dashed off this tweet, inspired by an online presentation by Ilana Preuss, about her recent book making the case for small-scale manufacturing in downtowns and on main streets.

More than 600 likes later, I realized that this is one of those things that’s both a bit of policy wonkery and an aspect of policy that affects people every day. That’s the thing about land-use policy in general; it feels really distant and arcane, but it’s the DNA of the places we inhabit every day. . . .

I actually had no idea, before becoming interested in these issues, that operations like microbreweries and coffee roasteries were often zoned as light industrial. But they are, which is part of why these consumer-facing businesses are often located in industrial/office-type areas outside of downtown, often accessible only by car and by following a number of winding roads into the office parks. (In some cases, cheaper rent than downtown is also probably at play.)

First of all, it’s obviously not a great idea to more or less force people to drive to a place where they’ll be drinking. Second, these kinds of businesses draw a lot of people, and are great ways to enliven main streets. Third, I get the sense that zoning hasn’t caught up to reality here. Budweiser or Maxwell House are obviously full-scale industrial enterprises. But lots of small microbreweries and roasters aren’t doing anything more “industrial” than a restaurant is. Their fire or disaster risk isn’t any greater, nor is the noise or the delivery traffic they generate. Lots of microbreweries have all their equipment in a single room in the back. These are street- and people-scaled, consumer-facing enterprises, and I’d say they belong where the people are.

That’s the point Preuss makes, even more broadly. Here’s some of what I took away from her presentation. One argument beyond the policy aspect is that a small network of mutually reliant businesses makes places stronger and more resilient. If you’re familiar with Strong Towns, you’ll recognize this argument. “Business owners with social connections to other business owners are twice as likely to survive,” says Preuss. This is the real point that’s being made when people criticize big-box stores or chains for “taking dollars out of a community,” or some such. It’s about creating a local network of businesses and customers who work together.

Read the whole thing and subscribe.

3. In Defense of Breezewood

I know I just linked to Chris Arnade recently, but his walking tours through oddball parts of America might be the most valuable things I read these days. This week, he went to Breezewood, PA.

Breezewood PA, thanks to a picture taken over a decade ago, has become a thing the internet shits on.

A place representing what is wrong with capitalism and small town America: a landscape of ugly franchises feeding fat people obsessed with rampant consumption.

It has turned the town into a nasty image of fly-over America. . . .

. . . As a photographer I also knew you shouldn’t trust a picture. Especially one using a long lens to flatten things, creating an image of a neon pile of ads, gas stations, and fast food.

Like all online fights, nobody bothered to considered what Breezewood though about all of this, or was like. So I went to walk a ten mile loop there, most of it rural, because Breezewood is actually only a single mile long strip of development, wedged in a rare flat stretch of rural Appalachia. . . .

For two hours I walked up and down that one-mile stretch, lined with hotels, fast food franchises, truck stops, and gas stations, dodging traffic. Looking for the community I was sure I would find.

But Breezewood isn’t your normal truck stop town. Its an awkward connector between a toll road (I-76) and an interstate (I-70), that only exists because of an old law saying they can’t directly connect. The result is millions of vehicles that don’t want to be there are funneled through a short stretch of a two lane road, with some stopping at stores that sprung up to cater to them, and others trying their best to zoom through as quickly as possible.

The result is constant chaos, noise, and traffic. A never-ending stream of semis turning here or there, zipping past without care, downshifting, breaks squealing. It is a fierce stretch of road that, despite my best hopes, had me thinking Breezewood was the hell the shit-posters online had made it out to be. . . .

After a few hours it started raining, ending the walk, which made me happy, because I was depressed and bored.

I went to my hotel, changed, and then found a small bar a mile outside of town where I sat for the night, drinking and talking about whatever with the regulars who came and went. . . .

After a few drinks I mentioned why I had come to Breezewood. Despite living all their lives in the area, nobody knew what I was talking about, or had seen the picture.

When I showed them the picture, they all starting laughing and shouting at me

“It is a fucking exit off the turnpike, what they expect it to look like? Heaven”

“Ha! If it wasn’t for Breezewood people would be shitting on the side of road, running out of gas, and out of stuff. Also it gives people jobs. Shut the fuck up.”

“I used to work in Breezewood, at one of the gas stations there. Everyone comes through Breezewood. I met Carrot Top. Met Dave Mustaine. Met John Cena. We used to tell each other when a famous person's bus showed up and we would rush out and try to spot them.”

A little “duh” light bulb went off above my head. The were completely right. That is what Breezewood is. It isn’t a political symbol for this or that, it isn’t the evils of capitalism incarnate, it isn’t some romantic real America. It is a fucking exit off the turnpike where people can shit.

Of course they were right, because this is their life. Unlike us smart thinkers sitting in front of our computers fighting, turning everything into some high faluting stuff, they are not completely removed from reality.

That we can sit all day fighting about Breezewood, because places like Breezewood exist, is lost on us. That we can comfortably get from our homes in A to our conference in B, without having to see the rest of America, because ugly transportation hubs like Breezwood exists, is also lost on us.

All of that is lost on us because deep down we don’t want to see the rest of America.

Read the whole thing and subscribe. You’ll thank me.

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I also add the following: Facebook as has been a very bad influence on the world. And every time someone suggests that Facebook fix the mess it has created, the company’s response is, “We’re trying! It’s all very hard! You have no idea how complicated this all is and we barely understand how it works ourselves!”

The idea that this same company is going to cleverly build out a totally new frontier so cleanly that it will spark mass adoption strikes me as . . . unlikely.