Zuckerberg’s Metaverse: Can It Be Trusted?

Tech companies are gearing up for metaverse, consumers are watching the space for immersive experiences, but can Facebook be trusted with the power that the technology brings in?

“The next big thing”, “the future of social communication”, “the most immersive world”, “the successor to the mobile internet” — a lot of nicknames have been given to the much-hyped ‘metaverse’. It is interesting to see that metaverse was first introduced in a 1992 fiction novel ‘Snow Crash’ by Neal Stephenson but has been talked about a lot since last month, as Facebook rebranded itself as ‘Meta’. Co-founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, has defined Meta as the amalgamation of social networking, AI, augmented reality (AR), and virtual reality (VR). 

Metaverse is not even a new idea

By changing the company’s name to ‘Meta’, Zuckerberg might try to prove that he is the one turning this ‘fictional idea’ into reality, but unfortunately, that’s not the case. Microsoft had already introduced Mesh — a service to build apps for people to collaborate in augmented reality. The company is also expected to introduce a Mesh-enabled version of AltspaceVR, which was acquired by the tech giant in 2017. Apple is also expected to release a VR headset as early as 2022 for around $3,000.

While the tech giants are stepping into the metaverse space, it is essential to consider that there are already players in the field! Roblox is a user-generated gaming platform valued and had declared by the start of 2021 about its metaverse plans that they had been working on for about 15 years. According to Statista, Roblox Corporation had over 43.2 million daily active users of Roblox games worldwide.

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Epic Games’ Fortnite is a metaverse game where 100 players participate together, and the player count is a whopping 350 million players from across the globe from 2017-2020. The Second Life gaming platform has been running since 2003, has an immersive VR experience where one can customize avatars, and has over 900,000 active users. 

Boundaries and privacy — A big question on Facebook’s Metaverse

A survey in January 2021 found that 75% of online harassment victims in the US had been cyberbullied via Facebook. Currently, this is done via text and pictures; with metaverse, this will reach a whole new level too. Metaverse relies on tracking people’s walk, expressions, and body movements to make cartoon avatars with real emotions. Now, imagine a group of such animated avatars – indecent and angry – yelling at you; this ramps up the potential of mental harm. Meta may not be the best company to introduce many to the world of the metaverse.

Though the company stopped the use of facial recognition on its Facebook app, the metaverse is expected to use a lot more monitoring and tracking tools that have a huge potential of invasion of privacy. 

From the Cambridge Analytica scandal that broke after the 2016 US presidential election to the recent disclosure by former employee Frances Haugens who accused Facebook of harming children and weakening democracy, Facebook has not been the best example of protecting user privacy and responding to reports. 

Currently, Meta has not shared a lot of details about its privacy policy and the use of personal data in the metaverse. 

Experts believe that centering the development of the metaverse in Europe could be a part of Zuckerberg’s strategy to stay in step with regulators as the EU has the world’s strictest data privacy and processing rules under General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Meta talks about virtual homes, meeting places, and virtual workplaces where it becomes extremely important for the consumers to be aware of what they are showing in their virtual spaces. The company will have to build a whole set of permissions with multiple layers and also consider user opinion here, and not have a ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ set of permissions. 

New horizons for the Adtech space

The much-used Gen Z term ‘IRL’ (In Real Life) will be taken to a whole new level with ads in the metaverse. Metaverses have a huge marketing potential that involves virtual stores, live shopping, virtual product launches, fashion shows that affect real economies, etc. The possibilities are endless as it moves beyond traditional digital advertising. 

People are expected to spend digital and even ‘real’ money on buying clothes, shoes, spaces, furniture and even art for their avatars. Nike has already filed seven trademarks this week to make and sell virtual apparel and sneakers. NFTs (Non-fungible tokens) are expected to be a big thing and prized possessions. To provide a reference, after Amitabh Bachchan’s sale of NFT art and audio collections, Kamal Haasan has announced his entrance to NFT, virtual avatar and the metaverse. 

Many brands have started marketing in the space. Balenciaga launched its immersive game called Afterworld that showcases its futuristic clothing line. Louis Vuitton, too, collaborated with another AR and VR immersive game called League of Legends. 

Metaverses are expected to transcend the real economy and expand the possibilities of owning equity in the digital space. The fear now is that the big tech companies will acquire more PII and optimize it for influencing buying behaviour.

Wrapping up

Meta is investing billions in their metaverse project. Roger McNamee, one of the early investors of Facebook, told the BBC that “Facebook should not be allowed to create a dystopian metaverse… A regulator or policymaker should be allowing Facebook to operate there [in the metaverse] or get into cryptocurrencies… As the amount of harm they’ve done is incalculable.”

With unit sales of virtual reality (VR) headsets worldwide to surpass the 34 million mark and augmented reality (AR) glasses to surpass 3.9 million units by 2024, immersive technologies will grow and become mainstream. 

It is now time to accept that metaverse will be the future of communications and social interactions in the virtual world, and it will be interesting to see how Meta or other tech companies design it — from the space itself to monetizing it and making the privacy policies. 

Let’s just start working on new greetings. I’ll start: “Let’s catch up — in the metaverse.”

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Meeta Ramnani
Meeta has completed PGD in Business Journalism from IIJNM, Bangalore. She comes with over six years of experience in journalism and writes about emerging enterprise technologies with a focus on digital transformation. She loves to go on bike rides and stays in touch with nature. Contact: meeta.ramnani@analyticsindiamag.com

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