This is the second post in a series on the Facebook monopoly. The first post explored how the U.S. Federal Trade Commission should define the Facebook monopoly. I am inspired by Cloudflare’s recent post explaining the impact of Amazon’s monopoly in its industry.
Perhaps it was a competitive tactic, but I genuinely believe it more a patriotic duty: guideposts for legislators and regulators on a complex issue. My generation has watched with a combination of sadness and trepidation as legislators who barely use email question the leading technologists of our time about products that have long pervaded our lives in ways we don’t yet understand.
I, personally, and my company both stand to gain little from this — but as a participant in the latest generation of social media upstarts, and as an American concerned for the future of our democracy, I feel a duty to try.
Mark Zuckerberg has reached his Key Largo moment.
In May 1972, executives of the era’s preeminent technology company — AT&T — met at a secret retreat in Key Largo, Florida. Their company was in crisis.
At the time, Ma Bell’s breathtaking monopoly consisted of a holy trinity: Western Electric (the vast majority of phones and cables used for American telephony), the lucrative long distance service (for both personal and business use) and local telephone service, which the company subsidized in exchange for its monopoly.
Over the next decade, all three government branches — legislators, regulators and the courts — parried with AT&T’s lawyers as the press piled on, battering the company’s reputation in the process. By 1982, a consent decree forced AT&T’s dismantling. The biggest company on earth withered to 30% of its book value and seven independent “Baby Bell” regional operating companies. AT&T’s brand would live on, but the business as the world knew it was dead.
Mark Zuckerberg is, undoubtedly, the greatest technologist of our time. For over 17 years, he has outgunned, outsmarted and outperformed like no software entrepreneur before him. Earlier this month, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission refiled its sweeping antitrust case against Facebook.
Its own holy trinity of Facebook Blue, Instagram and WhatsApp is under attack. All three government branches — legislators, regulators and the courts — are gaining steam in their fight, and the press is piling on, battering the company’s reputation in the process. Facebook, the AT&T of our time, is at the brink. For so long, Zuckerberg has told us all to move fast and break things. It’s time for him to break Facebook.
If Facebook does exist to “make the world more open and connected, and not just to build a company,” as Zuckerberg wrote in the 2012 IPO prospectus, he will spin off Instagram and WhatsApp now so that they have a fighting chance. It would be the ultimate Zuckerbergian chess move. Zuckerberg would lose voting control and thus power over all three entities, but in his action he would successfully scatter the opposition. The rationale is simple:
I write this as an admirer; I genuinely believe much of the criticism Zuckerberg has received is unfair. Facebook faces Sisyphean tasks. The FTC will not let Zuckerberg sneeze without an investigation, and the company has failed to innovate.
Given no chance to acquire new technology and talent, how can Facebook survive over the long term? In 2006, Terry Semel of Yahoo offered $1 billion to buy Facebook. Zuckerberg reportedly remarked, “I just don’t know if I want to work for Terry Semel.” Even if the FTC were to allow it, this generation of founders will not sell to Facebook. Unfair or not, Mark Zuckerberg has become Terry Semel.
It is not a matter of if; it is a matter of when.
In a speech on the floor of Congress in 1890, Senator John Sherman, the founding father of the modern American antitrust movement, famously said, “If we will not endure a king as a political power, we should not endure a king over the production, transportation and sale of any of the necessities of life. If we would not submit to an emperor, we should not submit to an autocrat of trade with power to prevent competition and to fix the price of any commodity.”
This is the sentiment driving the building resistance to Facebook’s monopoly, and it shows no sign of abating. Zuckerberg has proudly called Facebook the fifth estate. In the U.S., we only have four estates.
All three branches of the federal government are heating up their pursuit. In the Senate, an unusual bipartisan coalition is emerging, with Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Mark Warner (D-VA), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Josh Hawley (R-MO) each waging a war from multiple fronts.
In the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has called Facebook “part of the problem.” Lina Khan’s FTC is likewise only getting started, with unequivocal support from the White House that feels burned by Facebook’s disingenuous lobbying. The Department of Justice will join, too, aided by state attorneys general. And the courts will continue to turn the wheels of justice, slowly but surely.
In the wake of Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes’ scathing 2019 New York Times op-ed, Zuckerberg said that Facebook’s immense size allows it to spend more on trust and safety than Twitter makes in revenue.
“If what you care about is democracy and elections, then you want a company like us to be able to invest billions of dollars per year like we are in building up really advanced tools to fight election interference,” Zuckerberg said.
This could be true, but it does not prove that the concentration of such power in one man’s hands is consistent with U.S. public policy. And the centralized operations could be rebuilt easily in standalone entities.
Time and time again, whether on Holocaust denial, election propaganda or vaccine misinformation, Zuckerberg has struggled to make quick judgments when presented with the information his trust and safety team uncovers. And even before a decision is made, the structure of the team disincentivizes it from even measuring anything that could harm Facebook’s brand. This is inherently inconsistent with U.S. democracy. The New York Times’ army of reporters will not stop uncovering scandal after scandal, contradicting Zuckerberg’s narrative. The writing is on the wall.
Facebook Blue, Instagram and WhatsApp all face existential threats. Pressure from the government will stifle Facebook’s efforts to right the ship.
For so long, Facebook has dominated the social media industry. But if you ask Chinese technology executives about Facebook today, they quote Tencent founder Pony Ma: “When a giant falls, his corpse will still be warm for a while.”
Facebook’s recent demise begins with its brand. The endless, cascading scandals of the last decade have irreparably harmed its image. Younger users refuse to adopt the flagship Facebook Blue. The company’s internal polling on two key metrics — good for the world (GFW) and cares about users (CAU) — shows Facebook’s reputation is in tatters. Talent is fleeing, too; Instacart alone recently poached 55 Facebook executives.
In 2012 and 2014, Instagram and WhatsApp were real dangers. Facebook extinguished both through acquisition. Yet today they represent the company’s two most promising, underutilized assets. They are the underinvested telephone networks of our time.
Weeks ago, Instagram head Adam Mosseri announced that the company no longer considers itself a photo-sharing app. Instead, its focus is entertainment. In other words, as the media widely reported, Instagram is changing to compete with TikTok.
TikTok’s strength represents an existential threat. U.S. children 4 to 15 already spend over 80 minutes a day on ByteDance’s TikTok, and it’s just getting started. The demographics are quickly expanding way beyond teenagers, as social products always have. For Instagram, it could be too little too late — as a part of Facebook, Instagram cannot acquire the technology and retain the talent it needs to compete with TikTok.
Imagine Instagram acquisitions of Squarespace to bolster its e-commerce offerings, or Etsy to create a meaningful marketplace. As a part of Facebook, Instagram is strategically adrift.
Likewise, a standalone WhatsApp could easily be a $100 billion market cap company. WhatsApp has a proud legacy of robust security offerings, but its brand has been tarnished by associations with Facebook. Discord’s rise represents a substantial threat, and WhatsApp has failed to innovate to account for this generation’s desire for community-driven messaging. Snapchat, too, is in many ways a potential WhatsApp killer; its young users use photography and video as a messaging medium. Facebook’s top augmented reality talents are leaving for Snapchat.
With 2 billion monthly active users, WhatApp could be a privacy-focused alternative to Facebook Blue, and it would logically introduce expanded profiles, photo-sharing capabilities and other features that would strengthen its offerings. Inside Facebook, WhatsApp has suffered from underinvestment as a potential threat to Facebook Blue and Messenger. Shareholders have suffered for it.
Beyond Instagram and WhatsApp, Facebook Blue itself is struggling. Q2’s earnings may have skyrocketed, but the increase in revenue hid a troubling sign: Ads increased by 47%, but inventory increased by just 6%. This means Facebook is struggling to find new places to run its ads. Why? The core social graph of Facebook is too old.
I fondly remember the day Facebook came to my high school; I have thousands of friends on the platform. I do not use Facebook anymore — not for political reasons, but because my friends have left. A decade ago, hundreds of people wished me happy birthday every year. This year it was 24, half of whom are over the age of 50. And I’m 32 years old. Teen girls run the social world, and many of them don’t even have Facebook on their phones.
Zuckerberg’s newfound push into the metaverse has been well covered, but the question remains: Why wouldn’t a Facebook serious about the metaverse acquire Roblox? Of course, the FTC would currently never allow it.
Facebook’s current clunky attempt at a hardware solution, with an emphasis on the workplace, shows little sign of promise. The launch was hardly propitious, as CNN reported, “While Bosworth, the Facebook executive, was in the middle of describing how he sees Workrooms as a more interactive way to gather virtually with coworkers than video chat, his avatar froze midsentence, the pixels of its digital skin turning from flesh-toned to gray. He had been disconnected.”
This is not the indomitable Facebook of yore. This is graying Facebook, freezing midsentence.
Zuckerberg’s control of 58% of Facebook’s voting shares has forestalled a typical Wall Street reckoning: Investors are tiring of Zuckerberg’s unilateral power. Many justifiably believe the company is more valuable as the sum of its parts. The success of AT&T’s breakup is a case in point.
Five years after AT&T’s 1984 breakup, AT&T and the Baby Bells’ value had doubled compared to AT&T’s pre-breakup market capitalization. Pressure from Japanese entrants battered Western Electric’s market share, but greater competition in telephony spurred investment and innovation among the Baby Bells.
AT&T turned its focus to competing with IBM and preparing for the coming information age. A smaller AT&T became more nimble, ready to focus on the future rather than dwell on the past.
Standalone Facebook Blue, Instagram and WhatsApp could drastically change their futures by attracting talent and acquiring new technologies.
Zuckerberg has always been one step ahead. And when he wasn’t, he was famously unprecious: “Copying is faster than innovating.” If he really believes in Facebook’s mission and recognizes that the situation cannot possibly get any better from here, he will copy AT&T’s solution before it is forced upon him.
Regulators are tying Zuckerberg’s hands behind his back as the company weathers body blows and uppercuts from Beijing to Silicon Valley. As Zuckerberg’s idol Augustus Caesar might have once said, carpe diem. It’s time to break Facebook.
To celebrate its ten year anniversary, Messenger today announced a handful of new features: poll games, word effects, contact sharing, and birthday gifting via Facebook Pay. But beyond the fun features, Facebook has been testing a way to add voice and video calls back into the Facebook app, rather than on Messenger.
“We are testing audio and video calls within the Facebook app messaging experience so people can make and receive calls regardless of which app they’re using,” a representative from Facebook told TechCrunch. “This will give people on Facebook easy ways to connect with their communities where they already are.”
Although earlier in Facebook history, the Messenger app had operated as a standalone experience, Facebook tells us that it’s now starting to see Messenger less as a separate entity — more of an underlying technology that can help to power many of the new experiences Facebook is now developing.
“We’ve been focused more on real-time experiences — Watch Together, Rooms, Live Audio Rooms — and we’ve started to think of Messenger as a connective tissue regardless of the surface,” a Facebook spokesperson told us. “This is a test, but the bigger vision is for us to unlock content and communities that may not be accessible in Messenger, and that the Facebook app is going to become more about shared real-time experiences,” they added.
Given the company’s move in recent months to integrate its underlying communication infrastructure, it should come to reason that Facebook would ultimately add more touchpoints for accessing its new Messenger-powered features inside the desktop app, as well. When asked for comment on this point, the spokesperson said the company didn’t have any details to share at this time. However, they noted that the test is a part of Facebook’s broader vision to enable more real-time experiences across Facebook’s services.
Despite the new integrations, the standalone version of Messenger isn’t going away.
Facebook says that people who want a more “full-featured” messaging, audio and video calling experience” should continue to use Messenger.
Image Credits: Messenger
As for today’s crop of new features — including polls, word effects, contact sharing, and others — the goal is to celebrate Messenger’s ability to keep people in touch with their family a friends.
To play the new poll games, users can tap “Polls” in their group chat and select the “Most Likely To” tab — then, they can choose from questions like “most likely to miss their flight?” or “most likely to give gifts on their own birthday?”, select names of chat participants to be included as potential answers, and send the poll.
Contact sharing will make it easier to share others’ Facebook contacts through Messenger, while birthday gifting lets users send birthday-themed payments on Messenger via Facebook Pay. There will also be other “birthday expression tools,” including a birthday song soundmoji, “Messenger is 10!” sticker pack, a new balloon background, a message effect, and AR effect to celebrate Messenger’s double-digit milestone.
Image Credits: Messenger
Meanwhile, word effects lets users manually input a phrase, and any time they send a message with that phrase, an accompanying emoji will float across the screen. In an example, Messenger showed the phrase “happy birthday” accompanied with a word effect of confetti emojis flooding the screen. (That one’s pretty tame, but this could be a remarkable application of the poop emoji.) The company only shared a “sneak peak” of this feature, as it’s not rolling out immediately.
In total, Facebook is announcing a total of ten features, most of which will begin rolling out today.
Messenger has come a long way over the past decade.
Ten years ago, Facebook acqui-hired a small group messaging start-up called Beluga, started by three former Google employees (apparently, a functional group thread was a white whale back then — simpler times). Several months later, the company unveiled Messenger, a standalone messaging app.
But three years into Messenger’s existence, it was no longer an optional add-on to the Facebook experience, but a mandatory download for anyone who wanted to keep up with their friends on the go. Facebook removed the option to send messages within its flagship app, directing users to use Messenger instead. Facebook’s reasoning behind this, the company told TechCrunch at the time, was that they wanted to eliminate the confusion of having two different mobile messaging systems. Just months earlier, Facebook had spent $19 billion to acquire WhatsApp and woo international users. Though removing Messenger from the Facebook app was controversial, the app reached 1.2 billion users three years later in 2017.
Today, Facebook has declared that it wants to evolve into a “metaverse” company, and on the same day as the anti-trust filing last week, Mark Zuckerberg unveiled a product that applies virtual reality in an impressively boring way: helping people attend work meetings. This metaverse would be enabled by technologies built by Facebook’s platform team, noted Vice President of Messenger Stan Chudnovsky. However, he added that people in the metaverse will still need platforms like Messenger.
“I don’t think messaging is going anywhere, even in the metaverse, because a asynchronous communication is going to continue to exist,” Chudnovsky said. People will still need to send messages to those who aren’t currently available to chat, he explained. Plus, Chudnovsky believes this sort of communication will become even more popular with the launch of the metaverse, as the technology will help to serve as a bridge between your phone, real life, and the metaverse.
“if anything is gonna happen more, not less. Because messaging is that things that just continues to grow with every new platform leap,” he said.
Additional reporting: Sarah Perez
Facebook is a monopoly. Right?
Mark Zuckerberg appeared on national TV today to make a “special announcement.” The timing could not be more curious: Today is the day Lina Khan’s FTC refiled its case to dismantle Facebook’s monopoly.
To the average person, Facebook’s monopoly seems obvious. “After all,” as James E. Boasberg of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia put it in his recent decision, “No one who hears the title of the 2010 film ‘The Social Network’ wonders which company it is about.” But obviousness is not an antitrust standard. Monopoly has a clear legal meaning, and thus far Lina Khan’s FTC has failed to meet it. Today’s refiling is much more substantive than the FTC’s first foray. But it’s still lacking some critical arguments. Here are some ideas from the front lines.
To the average person, Facebook’s monopoly seems obvious. But obviousness is not an antitrust standard.
First, the FTC must define the market correctly: personal social networking, which includes messaging. Second, the FTC must establish that Facebook controls over 60% of the market — the correct metric to establish this is revenue.
Though consumer harm is a well-known test of monopoly determination, our courts do not require the FTC to prove that Facebook harms consumers to win the case. As an alternative pleading, though, the government can present a compelling case that Facebook harms consumers by suppressing wages in the creator economy. If the creator economy is real, then the value of ads on Facebook’s services is generated through the fruits of creators’ labor; no one would watch the ads before videos or in between posts if the user-generated content was not there. Facebook has harmed consumers by suppressing creator wages.
A note: This is the first of a series on the Facebook monopoly. I am inspired by Cloudflare’s recent post explaining the impact of Amazon’s monopoly in their industry. Perhaps it was a competitive tactic, but I genuinely believe it more a patriotic duty: guideposts for legislators and regulators on a complex issue. My generation has watched with a combination of sadness and trepidation as legislators who barely use email question the leading technologists of our time about products that have long pervaded our lives in ways we don’t yet understand. I, personally, and my company both stand to gain little from this — but as a participant in the latest generation of social media upstarts, and as an American concerned for the future of our democracy, I feel a duty to try.
According to the court, the FTC must meet a two-part test: First, the FTC must define the market in which Facebook has monopoly power, established by the D.C. Circuit in Neumann v. Reinforced Earth Co. (1986). This is the market for personal social networking services, which includes messaging.
Second, the FTC must establish that Facebook controls a dominant share of that market, which courts have defined as 60% or above, established by the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in FTC v. AbbVie (2020). The right metric for this market share analysis is unequivocally revenue — daily active users (DAU) x average revenue per user (ARPU). And Facebook controls over 90%.
The answer to the FTC’s problem is hiding in plain sight: Snapchat’s investor presentations:
Snapchat July 2021 investor presentation: Significant DAU and ARPU Opportunity. Image Credits: Snapchat
This is a chart of Facebook’s monopoly — 91% of the personal social networking market. The gray blob looks awfully like a vast oil deposit, successfully drilled by Facebook’s Standard Oil operations. Snapchat and Twitter are the small wildcatters, nearly irrelevant compared to Facebook’s scale. It should not be lost on any market observers that Facebook once tried to acquire both companies.
The FTC initially claimed that Facebook has a monopoly of the “personal social networking services” market. The complaint excluded “mobile messaging” from Facebook’s market “because [messaging apps] (i) lack a ‘shared social space’ for interaction and (ii) do not employ a social graph to facilitate users’ finding and ‘friending’ other users they may know.”
This is incorrect because messaging is inextricable from Facebook’s power. Facebook demonstrated this with its WhatsApp acquisition, promotion of Messenger and prior attempts to buy Snapchat and Twitter. Any personal social networking service can expand its features — and Facebook’s moat is contingent on its control of messaging.
The more time in an ecosystem the more valuable it becomes. Value in social networks is calculated, depending on whom you ask, algorithmically (Metcalfe’s law) or logarithmically (Zipf’s law). Either way, in social networks, 1+1 is much more than 2.
Social networks become valuable based on the ever-increasing number of nodes, upon which companies can build more features. Zuckerberg coined the “social graph” to describe this relationship. The monopolies of Line, Kakao and WeChat in Japan, Korea and China prove this clearly. They began with messaging and expanded outward to become dominant personal social networking behemoths.
In today’s refiling, the FTC explains that Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat are all personal social networking services built on three key features:
Unfortunately, this is only partially right. In social media’s treacherous waters, as the FTC has struggled to articulate, feature sets are routinely copied and cross-promoted. How can we forget Instagram’s copying of Snapchat’s stories? Facebook has ruthlessly copied features from the most successful apps on the market from inception. Its launch of a Clubhouse competitor called Live Audio Rooms is only the most recent example. Twitter and Snapchat are absolutely competitors to Facebook.
Messaging must be included to demonstrate Facebook’s breadth and voracious appetite to copy and destroy. WhatsApp and Messenger have over 2 billion and 1.3 billion users respectively. Given the ease of feature copying, a messaging service of WhatsApp’s scale could become a full-scale social network in a matter of months. This is precisely why Facebook acquired the company. Facebook’s breadth in social media services is remarkable. But the FTC needs to understand that messaging is a part of the market. And this acknowledgement would not hurt their case.
Boasberg believes revenue is not an apt metric to calculate personal networking: “The overall revenues earned by PSN services cannot be the right metric for measuring market share here, as those revenues are all earned in a separate market — viz., the market for advertising.” He is confusing business model with market. Not all advertising is cut from the same cloth. In today’s refiling, the FTC correctly identifies “social advertising” as distinct from the “display advertising.”
But it goes off the deep end trying to avoid naming revenue as the distinguishing market share metric. Instead the FTC cites “time spent, daily active users (DAU), and monthly active users (MAU).” In a world where Facebook Blue and Instagram compete only with Snapchat, these metrics might bring Facebook Blue and Instagram combined over the 60% monopoly hurdle. But the FTC does not make a sufficiently convincing market definition argument to justify the choice of these metrics. Facebook should be compared to other personal social networking services such as Discord and Twitter — and their correct inclusion in the market would undermine the FTC’s choice of time spent or DAU/MAU.
Ultimately, cash is king. Revenue is what counts and what the FTC should emphasize. As Snapchat shows above, revenue in the personal social media industry is calculated by ARPU x DAU. The personal social media market is a different market from the entertainment social media market (where Facebook competes with YouTube, TikTok and Pinterest, among others). And this too is a separate market from the display search advertising market (Google). Not all advertising-based consumer technology is built the same. Again, advertising is a business model, not a market.
In the media world, for example, Netflix’s subscription revenue clearly competes in the same market as CBS’ advertising model. News Corp.’s acquisition of Facebook’s early competitor MySpace spoke volumes on the internet’s potential to disrupt and destroy traditional media advertising markets. Snapchat has chosen to pursue advertising, but incipient competitors like Discord are successfully growing using subscriptions. But their market share remains a pittance compared to Facebook.
The FTC has correctly argued for the smallest possible market for their monopoly definition. Personal social networking, of which Facebook controls at least 80%, should not (in their strongest argument) include entertainment. This is the narrowest argument to make with the highest chance of success.
But they could choose to make a broader argument in the alternative, one that takes a bigger swing. As Lina Khan famously noted about Amazon in her 2017 note that began the New Brandeis movement, the traditional economic consumer harm test does not adequately address the harms posed by Big Tech. The harms are too abstract. As White House advisor Tim Wu argues in “The Curse of Bigness,” and Judge Boasberg acknowledges in his opinion, antitrust law does not hinge solely upon price effects. Facebook can be broken up without proving the negative impact of price effects.
However, Facebook has hurt consumers. Consumers are the workers whose labor constitutes Facebook’s value, and they’ve been underpaid. If you define personal networking to include entertainment, then YouTube is an instructive example. On both YouTube and Facebook properties, influencers can capture value by charging brands directly. That’s not what we’re talking about here; what matters is the percent of advertising revenue that is paid out to creators.
YouTube’s traditional percentage is 55%. YouTube announced it has paid $30 billion to creators and rights holders over the last three years. Let’s conservatively say that half of the money goes to rights holders; that means creators on average have earned $15 billion, which would mean $5 billion annually, a meaningful slice of YouTube’s $46 billion in revenue over that time. So in other words, YouTube paid creators a third of its revenue (this admittedly ignores YouTube’s non-advertising revenue).
Facebook, by comparison, announced just weeks ago a paltry $1 billion program over a year and change. Sure, creators may make some money from interstitial ads, but Facebook does not announce the percentage of revenue they hand to creators because it would be insulting. Over the equivalent three-year period of YouTube’s declaration, Facebook has generated $210 billion in revenue. one-third of this revenue paid to creators would represent $70 billion, or $23 billion a year.
Why hasn’t Facebook paid creators before? Because it hasn’t needed to do so. Facebook’s social graph is so large that creators must post there anyway — the scale afforded by success on Facebook Blue and Instagram allows creators to monetize through directly selling to brands. Facebooks ads have value because of creators’ labor; if the users did not generate content, the social graph would not exist. Creators deserve more than the scraps they generate on their own. Facebook suppresses creators’ wages because it can. This is what monopolies do.
Facebook has long been the Standard Oil of social media, using its core monopoly to begin its march upstream and down. Zuckerberg announced in July and renewed his focus today on the metaverse, a market Roblox has pioneered. After achieving a monopoly in personal social media and competing ably in entertainment social media and virtual reality, Facebook’s drilling continues. Yes, Facebook may be free, but its monopoly harms Americans by stifling creator wages. The antitrust laws dictate that consumer harm is not a necessary condition for proving a monopoly under the Sherman Act; monopolies in and of themselves are illegal. By refiling the correct market definition and marketshare, the FTC stands more than a chance. It should win.
A prior version of this article originally appeared on Substack.
Facebook’s journey toward making virtual reality a thing has been long and circuitous, but despite mixed success in finding a wide audience for VR, they have managed to build some very nice hardware along the way. What’s fairly ironic is that while Facebook has managed to succeed in finessing the hardware and operating system of its Oculus devices — things it had never done before — over the years it has struggled most with actually making a good app for VR.
The company has released a number of social VR apps over the years, and while each of them managed to do something right, none of them did anything quite well enough to stave off a shutdown. Setting aside the fact that most VR users don’t have a ton of other friends that also own VR headsets, the broadest issue plaguing these social apps was that they never really gave users a great reason to use them. While watching 360-videos or playing board games with friends were interesting gimmicks, it’s taken the company an awful lot of time to understand that a dedicated ”social” app doesn’t make much sense in VR and that users haven’t been looking for a standalone social app, so much as they’ve been looking for engaging experiences that were improved by social dynamics.
This all brings me to what Facebook showed me a demo of this week — a workplace app called Horizon Workrooms which is launching in open beta for Quest 2 users starting today.
The app seems to be geared towards providing work-from-home employees a virtual reality sphere to collaborate inside. Users can link their Mac or PC to Workrooms and livestream their desktop to the app while the Quest 2’s passthrough cameras allow users to type on their physical keyboard. Users can chat with one another as avatars and share photos and files or draw on a virtual whiteboard. It’s an app that would have made a more significant splash for the Quest 2 platform had it launched earlier in the pandemic, though it’s tackling an issue that still looms large among tech savvy offices — finding tech solutions to aid meaningful collaboration in a remote environment.
Horizon Workrooms isn’t a social app per se but the way it approaches social communication in VR is more thoughtful than any other first-party social VR app that Facebook has shipped. The spatial elements are less overt and gimmicky than most VR apps and simply add to an already great functional experience that, at times, felt more productive and engaging than a normal video call.
It all plays into CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s recent proclamation that Facebook is transitioning into becoming a “metaverse company.”
Now, what’s the metaverse? In Zuckerberg’s own words, “It’s a virtual environment where you can be present with people in digital spaces. You can kind of think of this as an embodied internet that you’re inside of rather than just looking at.” This certainly sounds like a fairly significant recalibration for Facebook, which has generally approached AR/VR as a wholly separate entity from its suite of mobile apps. Desktop users and VR users have been effectively siloed from each other over the years.
Generally, Facebook has been scaling Oculus like they’re building the next smartphone, building its headsets with a native app paradigm at their core. Meanwhile, Zuckerberg’s future-minded “metaverse” sounds much more like what Roblox has been building towards than anything Facebook has actually shipped. Horizon Workrooms is living under the Horizon brand which seems to be where Facebook’s future metaverse play is rooted. The VR social platform is interestingly still in closed beta after being announced nearly two years ago. If Facebook can ever see Horizon’s vision to fruition, it could grow to become a Roblox-like hub of user-created games, activities and groups that replaces the native app mobile dynamics with a more fluid social experience.
The polish of Workrooms is certainly a promising sign of where Facebook could be moving.
Facebook’s booming business is dominated by digital ads, but it also has hardware ambitions beyond VR. During the company’s latest earnings call, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said its next product release would be a pair of smart glasses from Ray-Ban.
“The glasses have their iconic form factor, and they let you do some pretty neat things,” the Facebook co-founder said. “So I’m excited to get those into people’s hands and to continue to make progress on the journey toward full augmented reality glasses in the future.”
Facebook’s sunglasses have been the subject of rumors since 2019. Back then, sources told CNBC that Facebook was working with Ray-Ban owner EssilorLuxottica on AR eyewear nicknamed “Orion.” The glasses were billed as a full-fledged phone replacement on which you could take calls, see information and even broadcast livestreams. That inevitably drew comparisons to Google Glass (another Luxottica collab) instead of the phone-tethered Spectacles from Snap. Last year, Hugo Barra, then VP VR at Facebook Reality Labs, confirmed that the glasses would land in 2021. But, we haven’t heard much since.
For Facebook, the glasses hold the key to its future. Alongside virtual reality, augmented reality (AR) is integral to building the “metaverse,” Zuckerberg said. In the future, Facebook will morph into a shared, liveable platform that lets you “teleport” between different social experiences using VR and AR, Zuckerberg explained.
The term metaverse is the latest buzzword seized upon by Silicon Valley and futurists. While the concept has been around for well over a decade, it gained traction after the breakout success of multiplayer game creation platforms like Fortnite and Roblox. Earlier this week, Microsoft chief Satya Nadella mentioned an “enterprise metaverse” on his company’s earnings call.
For Facebook, the metaverse is more than just a fad. The company is spending billions in order to build its shared universe, which will be populated with Facebook users and digital ads, according to Zuckerberg. In order for it to become a reality, the company needs more people to buy its computing hardware. Therefore, the plan is to make those devices more affordable.
“Our business model isn’t going to primarily be around trying to sell devices at a large premium or anything like that because our mission is around serving as many people as possible,” Zuckerberg noted. “So we want to make everything that we do as affordable as possible, so as many people as possible can get into it and then compounds the size of the digital economy inside it. So that’s kind of at a high level how I’m thinking about this.”
Sunglasses aren’t the only hardware Facebook is reportedly working on. Multiple reports have claimed Facebook is developing a smartwatch with a built-in cellular connection and a detachable display. Initially, it was believed that the watch would be first out the gate, but it seems Zuckerberg had other plans.
Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on Engadget.
“I wanted to discuss this now so that you can see the future that we’re working towards and how our major initiative across the company are going to map to that,” Zuckerberg said on the call. “What is the metaverse? It’s a virtual environment where you can be present with people in digital spaces. You can kind of think of this as an embodied internet that you’re inside of rather than just looking at.”
These comments echoed an interview he gave to The Verge last week, detailing some of the company’s future goals.
The metaverse offers Facebook an opportunity to draw a line between its moonshot efforts and its core business, building a wide-reaching hub that shines on augmented reality and virtual reality platforms but feels just as friendly on mobile and desktop. Zuckerberg’s definition of metaverse is more broad than some others, but comes down to building a version of the web that feels more like an MMO than a collection of web pages.
Early renders of Facebook’s Horizon platform. Image via Facebook.
It’s hard to imagine now, but Facebook was late to mobile. A decade ago, Facebook’s apps were buggy, crash-prone HTML5 experiences, even as smooth native mobile apps were quickly becoming the standard for major software makers. By 2012, Zuckerberg realized that apps were the future — quickly becoming the present — and the Facebook founder scrambled to turn the company’s attention toward mobile at every level. Facebook doesn’t intend to make the same mistake twice. That philosophy first became abundantly clear when the company bought the industry-leading VR hardware maker Oculus in 2014.
“Mobile is the platform of today, and now we’re also getting ready for the platforms of tomorrow,” Zuckerberg said around the time of the two billion dollar acquisition. “Oculus has the chance to create the most social platform ever, and change the way we work, play and communicate.”
Becoming “a metaverse company” is a further evolution of this thinking. For many, Roblox has seemed to be the clearest embodiment of the metaverse today — a social world where users can jump between virtual experiences while creating their own experiences inside it. It’s notably not a virtual reality experience instead thriving largely on mobile and desktop. Roblox’s vision has resonated with investors, the now-public company is worth more than $45 billion — a fraction of Facebook’s value but more than almost any other games company in the West.
Facebook has been signaling its continued interest in this space. In June they bought a Roblox-like platform called Crayta for an undisclosed sum, and they’ve spent much of the last several years buying up a host of VR-focused game studios.
The company has tried to build its own VR-centric social hubs but most have fallen flat. Facebook’s metaverse-like Horizon platform garnered major headlines when it was announced nearly two years ago, but the company has had little to say during its exceedingly quiet beta period. This week, Facebook’s Andrew Bosworth detailed that Gaming VP Vivek Sharma would be taking over the effort under a new metaverse-centric product group led by Instagram’s Vishal Shah.
There’s a very particular distinction in Facebook’s choice of rebranding itself as a “metaverse” company as opposed to an AR/VR one. While some might have seen specialized hardware as essential to a spatial internet, it’s become increasingly clear that users aren’t clamoring to embrace early headsets even as other new gaming platforms greatly accelerate their growth. While the company’s Quest 2 headset has sold much better than its previous devices — according to Facebook which has yet to release any hard sales numbers — it’s unclear whether they truly need a world full of users with Facebook glasses and headsets strapped to their faces in order to embrace this metaverse ideal — or whether that would just be the cherry on top.