When Facebook announced its plans to build the metaverse and changed its name to Meta, it generated a lot of buzz and optimism about the future possibilities of an immersive virtual world. However, Meta’s vision and approach also raises concerns about the potential downsides if the social media giant mucks up the development of this new digital realm.
The metaverse concept represents the next phase of the internet, moving beyond just viewing content to immersing users in a virtual world where they can interact and experience things together. While Meta isn’t the only company working on the metaverse, its massive resources and user base position it to potentially dominate this emerging space.
This level of control by a single company over the foundations of the metaverse could go horribly wrong. If Meta applies its same business model, governance issues, and social problems from Facebook to its metaverse, it may fail to create an open, accessible virtual world that people enjoy inhabiting.
Centralized Power and Walled Gardens
A core concern around Meta leading the metaverse is that it would act as a centralized gatekeeper maintaining too much control. The company has already discussed requiring users to log in to the metaverse with a Facebook account.
This could evolve into walled gardens where Meta controls permissions, blocking users from taking digital assets to other virtual worlds. The metaverse would be far more empowering as an open ecosystem where identity, content, and goods can flow freely.
Rather than learning from the mistakes of closed platforms like Facebook, there are valid fears Meta will try to own the entire metaverse value chain end-to-end. This includes operating stores for digital assets, controlling payment mechanisms, enforcing policies unilaterally, and restricting third-party access if it deems necessary.
Privacy Concerns and Data Mining
Meta’s business model depends on collecting vast amounts of user data for ad targeting. But many consumers already view Facebook as excessively data mining its users with little regard for privacy. The question becomes whether Meta can resist the urge to leverage its position and make the metaverse another data extraction platform.
Recording users’ every move, interaction, purchase, and even emotions would provide tremendous insights for serving targeted ads and influencing behaviors. But these types of invasive practices could sour users on the metaverse experience if they feel their privacy is being invaded at every turn. Maintaining an ad-supported business model while respecting privacy boundaries will be a difficult balancing act.
Widening Divides and Social Ills
Facebook’s algorithms and targeting tools have received criticism for increasing polarization, spreading misinformation, and fostering echo chambers. Meta will need to consider how these existing product issues could become exponentially worse in an immersive environment like the metaverse.
Without proper safeguards, the metaverse could devolve into a virtual dystopia where societal problems like harassment, hate speech, and radicalization grow unchecked. Meta would also need to address thorny ethical issues regarding realistic violence and crime in the metaverse.
If these problems are allowed to replicate and intensify within the metaverse, negative outcomes seem inevitable. This includes widening social divides, damaging mental health effects, digital addiction, and new avenues for predatory behavior.
A fragmented metaverse controlled primarily by Meta could jeopardize the biggest promised benefit of virtual worlds – connectivity and interoperability. The ideal metaverse allows seamless teleportation across worlds and borders, merging realities from different creators.
But Meta is likely to focus on building its own pillar of the metaverse rather than open web standards that promote integration. If Meta limits the ability to teleport or take digital goods between worlds, it severely curtails the scope and potential of the metaverse.
There are risks that Meta’s dominance over key metaverse infrastructure could potentially limit competition and innovation in the long run. Meta would have less incentive to keep improving hardware, APIs, and features if most users inhabit its version of the metaverse out of convenience.
With reduced competitive pressures, Meta may be slow to adopt future innovations like haptics, neural interfaces, and extended reality. And much like the mobile ecosystem, developers could chafe under Meta’s operating standards and content restrictions for the metaverse. This could disincentivize talented builders from participating.
Unappealing Interface Design
Many users still find existing VR headsets to provide an isolating and often nausea-inducing experience. So interface design and motion sickness problems in current VR could be a bad sign if Meta rushes the metaverse to market with similar flaws.
Until issues like field of view limitations, eye strain, clunky controllers, simulation sickness, and general discomfort are resolved, the metaverse risks being an unappealing and off-putting world for the average consumer to spend time in.
Exclusive Hardware Requirements
There are also concerns around exclusivity and affordability of hardware needed to access the metaverse. Meta already tied its Oculus device ecosystem to Facebook accounts, and its future VR/AR headsets may similarly be limited to interfacing with a Facebook metaverse.
This could exclude anyone unable or unwilling to purchase Meta’s expensive hardware from participating in the broader metaverse. Meta would need to ensure metaverse access remains open to all hardware configurations, not just its own.
Ads in Virtual Spaces
The greatest uncertainty is how Meta plans to monetize the metaverse. But based on Facebook’s ad-driven model, it seems likely advertising will play a major role. This raises thorny questions about ad implementation.
For example, would users have to opt out of seeing ads placed in their virtual homes or spaces? Could businesses buy metaverse real estate and erect massive virtual billboards? Might VR experiences be interrupted by video ads? Immersive ads could take distraction and annoyance to new levels.
Self-Absorbed Cultural Focus
There are also reasonable concerns that Meta’s view of the metaverse may be too focused on mirroring social media use cases and reflecting the cultural nuances of its American user base. A broader global vision would be needed to ensure the metaverse evolves into a welcoming space for all cultures.
If Meta builds the metaverse primarily as an extension of the Facebook and Instagram feed experience, it will have failed to appreciate the new experiential possibilities of virtual worlds unbound by the limitations of physical reality.
These are just some of the ways that Meta could severely hamper the trajectory of the metaverse if it applies a closed-off, ad-driven, and culturally myopic approach. With its vast resources and talented personnel, Meta has an opportunity to build the scaffolding of the metaverse in an ethical and socially responsible manner.
But given the company’s past issues and controversies, there remains a deep mistrust of Meta’s motives in developing such a critical part of the digital landscape. For his part, Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg has acknowledged the skepticism and said the company has learned from past missteps:
“We’re committed to doing this responsibly. Part of that is about ensuring the metaverse isn’t owned or operated by any one company. We want to do this together with other companies, creators, developers, and policymakers.”
Only time will tell if this is genuine openness to outside collaboration and oversight, or just lip service to assuage public concerns about the increased influence Meta seeks over the fabric of online life.
To fully deliver on the promise of the metaverse, Meta can’t just talk about cooperation and interoperability. It must make the hard design choices and tradeoffs needed to integrate social good into the architecture of virtual worlds.
Regulators will also be watching Meta’s metaverse moves closely for any anti-competitive practices or privacy violations. This scrutiny, combined with pushback from both users and competing platforms, should incentivize Meta to tread cautiously.
In the end, Meta may build a relatively open and welcoming social metaverse. But its track record offers little reason to give it the benefit of doubt. All indications suggest that the company will pursue an ad-based business model powering a Facebook-dominated virtual world.
Whether society receives the metaverse as a freeing new extension of human connection and creativity, or a virtual prison enriching Meta alone, remains to be determined. The stakes are high, and Meta stands poised to either uplift or seriously muck up the next stage of the internet. If it chooses the latter path, the backlash from disappointed users combined with regulation could still open the door for a better decentralized metaverse.
Meta undeniably has vast resources and talent needed to drive mainstream adoption of virtual worlds. But the company culture continues prioritizing profit over social responsibility. If Meta cannot or will not build the utopian metaverse we deserve, it falls to tech visionaries, startups, and forward-thinking regulators to pick up that mantle and lead us into the next digital frontier.