The Week: Yes, it's the Meta edition

The metaverse! The death of the free web! Some links!

Welcome to this week’s free edition of The Terminal. Here’s what I’ve published for subscribers in the past week:

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Into the metaverse

Well, you’ve no doubt seen the announcement and the gags: Facebook is now Meta, the metaverse company. Zuckerberg sweated his way through an hour-long presentation on the company’s vision for the metaverse which seesaws between a primary school show-and-tell and a 1998 advertisement for the Sega Dreamcast.

It’s very long and tedious, and contains a heady mix of quite specific detail along with heady platitudes about what the future of the internet looks like. It describes a future of decentralised platforms and digital ownership along with new modes of online social contact and community building, then trots out Nick Clegg to make a veiled threat to lawmakers to get out of the way and let it happen. This radical new horizon of human connectedness looks a lot like a gussied up Wii Sports, incidentally.

This rebranding and bold new pitch for Facebook comes at the intersection of two prevailing winds. Firstly, the company knows that its existing lineup of apps, used by a huge chunk of the world’s population, face threats from all angles. TikTok is eating Instagram’s lunch when it comes to teen attention, and the main Facebook app has become a barely functional open-air sanitarium and regulatory target which is mostly used out of a misplaced sense of social obligation. Secondly, the Facebook brand is so thoroughly torched by now that nobody would willingly entrust them with the development of the next phase of the internet. So it’s Meta now.

The crypto and Web3 scene have been talking about the metaverse for a little while now, pitching it as a decentralised, persistent second-world internet controlled by consumers and creators rather than the Big Tech companies which have grown like tumours on the social web. Maybe that will still play out! I’m open to it. Sounds nice in theory. But in one fell swoop, Facebook has colonised the concept of the metaverse (including, amusingly, the ticker symbol MVRS) and pushed themselves to the front as pitchman to the average consumer.

It’d be like if, in the early days of the internet, a trillion-dollar company rebranded itself as INTERNET, put itself at the head of developing ‘open’ web standards, mobilised a political lobbying force, and started pumping tens of billions of dollars into the whole enterprise1.

In short, I find it challenging to believe that the metaverse isn’t going to just reify the existing structure of internet power, even if its cowboy advocates sell it as more democratising or liberating.


While we’re on it

One more on Facebook/Meta/who cares.

There’s been some interesting pushback from some people in the Facebook orbit following the release of the Papers (which I wrote about this week). They don’t necessarily contest the substance of the reporting per se, but take issue with how some of the revelations are weighted and contextualised.

Speaking to Casey Newton at Platformer, an anonymous former Facebook integrity worker argued that much of what is being sold as evidence of internal policymaking is more like fast-and-loose conversations between coworkers in Workplace, which is Facebook’s internal communication tool:

So a lot of what is getting described as "internal debate" is really just posters posting because they are procrastinating from doing their real job. It doesn't mean it's not important or not worth looking at, but a lot of the Facebook Papers are given a lot more gravitas than they probably deserve. These are off-the-cuff conversations between people who for the most part are not involved with deliberations or decision-making, but just wanted to weigh in because an announcement post happened to come across their (algorithmically sorted and optimised for engagement) Workplace feed.

That last part, about how the internal communication at Facebook is subject to the same algorithmic incentives as its platforms and therefore encourages a certain kind of freewheeling participation, comes up a few times in the interview.

Former Facebook public policy director Katie Harbath echoed this sentiment in a newsletter, arguing that the vision it gives of the decision-making processes within the company is skewed or incomplete. “The public is getting an important and informative glimpse into the research of what is happening on the platform, but it’s not the full picture,” she writes.

Whether or not you’re inclined to swallow that, I think there’s something going on there. It reminds me of the Atlantic piece about Slack from last week, which argued that the popular workplace communications software has created its own system of conventions and incentives which hold true across most organisations that use it. Similarly, much of the crypto world conversation takes place in private Discord servers, which again reifies a certain way of talking about and doing things.

This is less about Facebook and more about how we disentangle this stuff when so much of important world activity takes place within the confines of vast, globe-spanning private platforms. I touched on this a bit in an earlier piece for subscribers and will write something longer this week.


The Sizzle

An interlude here to make a recommendation. I recently signed up for Anthony Agius’ newsletter The Sizzle, which is an Australia-focused digest of the biggest stories in tech every weekday plus some commentary (and deals, if that’s your thing).

He’s been running it for about six years — long before us mugs jumping onto the Substack boom — and it’s developed a bit of a cult following among people in the industry. He was kind enough to shout out The Terminal to his followers earlier this week, and I’m gladly returning the favour.

You can sign up for a two-week trial over at the website, and I’d encourage you to do so! It’s a quick, easy read to get your head around the biggest stories in tech.



Something to chew on


Not cute

A very interesting story here about Cuties, the French movie which became the centre of a firestorm of controversy after Netflix acquired it. It became a culture war locus, with conservatives pointing to it as evidence of a morally depraved, pedophiliac Hollywood.

It’s a weird kind of PR effort afoot here. Netflix knew they had a bomb on their hands, but also knew that deleting the movie from the service would be an even bigger story. So instead they suppressed it in search results and did everything possible to ensure that only people who really wanted to find it would. Including this really interesting collision of crisis management and the algorithm.

The company also made sure that searches for problematic terms like “pedo” wouldn’t surface results for Cuties. Without oversight, that was a real possibility because Netflix’s algorithm takes into account behavioral data, which tracks what Netflix viewers actually watch in addition to what they search for. If members search for “pedo” but end up playing Cuties, the French film would have eventually surfaced as a result for the search term “pedo.”

I don’t think anyone thinks Netflix is a neutral arbiter as a platform, but it’s still an interesting example of how politics plays out in these sorts of spaces.


Elsewhere

1

There’s an argument to be made that there are echoes of this with Internet Explorer and the browser wars of the nineties, but I feel like the scale, complexity and commercialisation is on a totally different level. Ditto for something like America Online.