As with most of Facebook’s strategy announcements, Thursday’s rebranding formalized a shift that has been underway for years. The company already has more than 10,000 people working on augmented and virtual reality projects in its Reality Labs division — roughly twice as many people as are on Twitter’s entire staff — and has said it plans to hire 10,000 more in Europe soon. Earlier this week, the company announced that it would spend about $10 billion on metaverse-related investments this year, and it has been acquiring V.R. start-ups in what could amount to a metaverse land grab.
There are several types of questions one could ask about this metaverse strategy. The first and most basic is: What is a metaverse, and what will Facebook’s version of one look like?
That question was answered, at least partially, by Thursday’s presentation. Mr. Zuckerberg painted a picture of the metaverse as a clean, well-lit virtual world, entered with virtual and augmented reality hardware at first and more advanced body sensors later on, in which people can play virtual games, attend virtual concerts, go shopping for virtual goods, collect virtual art, hang out with each others’ virtual avatars and attend virtual work meetings.
To understand why Mr. Zuckerberg is going all in, it helps to understand that a successful metaverse pivot could help solve at least four big, thorny problems Facebook faces here in the terrestrial world.
The first is one I’ve written about before, which is that Facebook’s core social media business is aging, and younger users are abandoning its apps in favor of TikTok, Snapchat and other, cooler apps. Facebook’s youth problem hasn’t hurt it financially yet, but ad revenue is a lagging indicator, and there is plenty of evidence that even Instagram — the supposedly healthy app in Facebook’s portfolio — is rapidly losing the attention of teenagers and twentysomethings.
The bleakest version of what Facebook might become in the next few years, if current trends hold — a Boomer-dominated sludge pit filled with cute animal videos and hyperpartisan garbage — is clearly not the kind of thing the company wants as its flagship product. (Mr. Zuckerberg explicitly endorsed a youth-focused strategy this week, saying that the company’s new focus was attracting and retaining young users.)
The metaverse could help with the company’s demographic crisis, if it encourages young people to strap on their Oculus headsets and hang out in Horizon — Facebook’s social V.R. app — instead of watching TikTok videos on their phones.
Another problem Facebook’s metaverse strategy could address, if it works, is platform risk. For years, Mr. Zuckerberg has been irked that because Facebook’s mobile apps run on iOS and Android, its success is highly dependent on Apple and Google, two companies whose priorities are often diametrically opposed to its own. This year’s “app tracking transparency” changes by Apple, for example, dealt a blow to Facebook’s advertising business by making it harder for the company to collect data about users’ mobile activity. And if smartphones remain the dominant way that people interact online, Facebook will never truly control its own destiny.