The Story Beyond the Meta Story
James Ward
James Ward • Nov 04

The Story Beyond the Meta Story

by James Ward

I don't really want to write a post about Meta. And, given the number of posts already out there, I certainly don't want to write a post about the posts about meta. A Meta post metapost would be too meta to post.

(Sorry - I had to.)

The reality, though, is that we do need to talk about Meta, the Metaverse, and what Facebook is really after with this play. Yes, of course, there is the distraction component -- nothing quite like bread and media circus to shift our attention away from Frances Haugen and the slow-drip attack from the Wall Street Journal. But in my view, that's only a very small part of this story. Like everything at Facebook, I think it's a lot deeper and a lot worse than it looks.

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Wagging the Dog

Let's get one thing straight: out of Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp, Facebook is by far the least attractive business model in the long term. Instagram's total audience now exceeds Facebook's, even if you don't account for the enormous number of fake/deceased/abandoned Facebook accounts. WhatsApp far outpaces Facebook Messenger in terms of the number of users and, importantly, is the lone messaging app of choice for hundreds of millions around the world. Perhaps most importantly, Facebook itself is losing the war for attention as its users age out, burn out, or tune out the incessant noise. Any way you look at it, the Facebook leg of the Meta tripod is getting wobblier by the day.

But we might think about this in a more strategic way to uncover why the move to Meta makes sense for Zuckerberg & Co. It's not just that Facebook's brand is a toxic asset, though it is -- if you could book "ill will" on a balance sheet, the company would be underwater. It's that Facebook doesn't represent a meaningful component of Meta's big bet, which is that a VR/AR world is the next big thing. You see, Mark thinks that everyone will want to live in his metaverse and play games, interact with others, attend concerts, and do all of the other things that humans typically like to do, you know, with one another. 

Now you might think that this reflects a near pathologic distaste for actual human interaction, and you might be right. Zuckerberg has an extraordinary amount of control of the company and, auteur-like, his peccadilloes seem to manifest themselves in business decisions from the mundane (a bland, never-changing aesthetic) to the tragicomic (the company performs as well under investigation as Mark himself does in front of a Congressional committee). So perhaps Meta -- an online space where you can interact with, but never have actually to be with, other people -- reflects the reclusive Zuckerberg's distaste for everyone else? Are we finally going to get Mark's dream of being able to evaluate everyone else without ever having to be around them, which was Facebook's purpose in the first place?

Interesting though it may be, it probably doesn't matter too much because Facebook isn't the motivation or thesis behind the metaverse. Instagram is.

Interesting though it may be, it probably doesn't matter too much, because Facebook isn't the motivation or thesis behind the metaverse. Instagram is.
Constructing Reality

What makes Instagram so popular? The imagery certainly doesn't hurt - it effectively created an approach to photography that's so widely understood we don't even need a name for it. It's a bit passe now, but the phrase that jumps to mind is "do it for the gram," the idea that you should do something, anything, for the possibility of getting a gram-worthy post out of it. There is, in fact, an entire body of academic literature that explores Instagram and the outsized role it plays in the establishment of identity online.

Instagram is, in some ways, the most important source of online identity construction. Why? Unlike Facebook or Twitter, which are still, in many ways, text-based, or TikTok, which is more anarchic, younger, and memetic, Instagram is about image. Presentation on Instagram is far more elaborate, more constructed, more staged than on any other platform precisely because there is an expectation that if you're posting on Instagram, you want the image (and, therefore, you) to be perceived in a certain way. It *has* to look a certain way to convey the message and the image that you've created -- no matter how far that image is from reality.

As leaked Facebook documents make clear, the real-world ramifications of this desire to create a constructed image are serious, partially because the constructed reality can depart so profoundly from *actual* reality. For teens, that difference leads to profound damage, including dramatically increased rates of depression, eating disorders, and self-harm. For others, the consequences are of a different but still serious nature: the unaffordable trap of conspicuous consumption. Creating the "perfect" image often involves the "perfect" setting, with clothes, furnishing, and the trappings to match. For some Instagram users, the performance of fabricated success comes at a price that isn't pretend at all. It's real-world money spent to construct an identity that fits the Instagram ideal -- sleek, immaculate, posed, trendy, and (usually) expensive.

And here we come to a strange paradox of doing it for the 'gram: you're not doing it for the people who know you, you're doing it for the people who don't know you, precisely because they don't know any better.

Of course, this constructed identity doesn't work on the people who actually know us. You can view as many a family's "plandid" shots (staged photos meant to look unstaged) as you like, but if you actually know the family, you're well aware that it was one nanosecond of blissful, #blessed and two hours of shouting, bribes, threats, and utter chaos. And here we come to a strange paradox of doing it for the 'gram: you're not doing it for the people who know you, you're doing it for the people who don't know you, precisely because they don't know any better. To these unknown or barely known followers, the shiplap walls and smiling child *are* who you are, and it is this second identity that people lavish time, attention, and money to create. It is a reality that is, by definition and purpose, unreal.

Back on the Farm

That is exactly what the metaverse is, an unreal reality. It's a purely fictional space that allows its users, at last, to shed the annoying vestiges of uncontrollable reality and create an identity that fits them precisely as they wish. It is the bending of reality to constructed self-identity with just a knowing wink that it's all just pretend. But just because it's all just pretend doesn't mean it's *only* pretend -- Facebook will still be monitoring everything you do, recording everything you do, monetizing everything you do, and selling ads based on everything you do. We don't even need to get into the metaphysical questions of what is reality and what reality is because a) that's a lifetime of talking and b) there's a new Matrix coming out at Christmas, so we can just let Keanu handle it.

There's a new twist to the business model, though. Right now, Facebook simply monitors your clicks, your likes, and your interactions on and off its platforms to create an advertising profile around you. That's one of the ways Facebook makes money, but it isn't the only way. In 2009-2010, Facebook showed the remarkable potential for in-app purchases when it released/unleashed Farmville. In addition to pestering us with thousands of unwanted alerts about fictional agronomy, Farmville showed how much people were willing to spend on a pretend farm that they could show off to others -- $600m in 2010 alone. Farmville, in many ways, was what drove Facebook's massive user engagement in the early 2010s and put it in a position to be a daily, if not hourly, draw for users.

And so now we see how the metaverse can, and will, be the merger of Facebook's two greatest successes: Instagram and Farmville. Imagine a space where you can entirely construct your identity, with your representation of yourself to the world entirely within your control -- you just might need to spend $4.99 to upgrade the stand mixer in your metaverse kitchen from the standard one to the Kitchen-Aid 10-quart. Want to spruce up a little? Why spend $800 on a pair of Gucci loafers in real life when you can spend $8 to get them in the metaverse. And if you think that major name companies won't line up to let you buy branded gear in the metaverse may I introduce you to a concept called "you think they won't want free money?"

It's devious, manipulative, and utterly brilliant if it works. For now, VR/AR is, generally, rubbish and hard to look at. It's like walking around in a live version of Nintendo 64's Goldeneye, albeit with fewer tanks. But the technology isn't far off, and it's more a question of getting people used to wearing the devices and being data gathering tools for Facebook. Perhaps now the seemingly baffling Facebook/Ray-ban sunglasses gambit makes more sense. It was never really about gathering data for Facebook. It was about acclimating people to wearing an interactive device, laying the groundwork for the metaverse, for making the real world an augmented Farmville.

t was never really about gathering data for Facebook, it was about acclimating people to wearing an interactive device, laying the groundwork for the metaverse, for making the real world an augmented Farmville.

We can debate the name or the logo all we want, but the real story is hidden behind the chatter. Facebook is making a play to create an entirely new space, a world where Instagram reality is reality. A fundamental change to the way millions (billions?) of people perceive the world more or less hinges on whether the graphics card in the Oculus VR viewer gets good enough for us to want to put them on -- in effect, we'll decide whether we want to participate in unreality based on whether it's a decent enough visual approximation of real reality. How's that for meta?

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James Ward
James Ward

James Ward is a lawyer, privacy advocate, and fan of listing things in threes. Nothing he says here should be considered legal advice/don’t get legal advice from social media posts. He promises he’s not as smug as he looks in his profile picture.

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