Escaping Into the Metaverse

Amid revelations that Facebook did not do enough to counter anti-vaccine disinformation on its platform; that it disputed its own research showing that Instagram, which it owns, posed harm to teen girls; and that it ranked countries it would help combat the sharing of election lies, what is its bold step? The company has changed its name to Meta, because that’s how you fix thorny problems.

Prolonged, sad sigh.

According to CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Meta means “beyond,” which is pretty rich given the announcement’s timing. I don’t doubt that that’s exactly where he’d like to be in relation to the company’s ever-churning controversies.

It hardly needs saying, but the creation of this “metaverse company,” as he calls it, will fix exactly nothing that ails Facebook. It is really just a larger corporate structure that will include the flagship social media platform and its other divisions. The change signals that the stubborn Zuckerberg has decided to brazen it out, which I suggested he might do (but hoped he would not) in my Tuesday newsletter. And so, we get an arrogant, let’s-move-on-shall-we attitude and little to say about the recent spate of internal documents from whistle-blower Frances Haugen that paint a very problematic picture of the company.

Not that anyone pushed him hard in the handful of extraordinarily light media interviews he agreed to — all with white male journalists, which is an interesting, but unsurprising, P.R. optics choice. Instead of the controversial topics, it was futuristic and, I admit, thought-provoking chitchat about his thus-far-vaporware vision. In the future, according to Zuckerberg, we will be interacting via the metaverse, where the analog and digital will merge into a new paradigm.

Come on, you annoying sticks in the mud, I am tired of the unsolvable messy stuff, and I just want to show you the clean, bright edges of my strange-looking new fake 3-D virtual world.

At a virtual event unveiling its new technology, Zuckerberg appeared in some faux tropical setting. “Imagine, you put on your glasses or headset, and you’re instantly in your home space,” he said. “It has an incredibly inspiring view of whatever you find most beautiful.” (Of course, the internet did what it does best, giving his demo the meme treatment. Meanwhile, a “The Daily Show” video put the meta Zuckerberg at the Charlottesville white supremacy rally.)

Personally, I like the real world, one that’s not riven by the hate that’s being stoked, in part, by tech companies like Facebook. But, hey, look over here at this airy, techtopia concept. There’s “Project Cambria,” the code name for a new high-end headset thingie that is still in development. And, oh, wow, it’s a Mark avatar in a skeleton costume being controlled by Mark himself!

This is not a new tactic. When it was in regulatory trouble in the 1990s, Microsoft hosted Forum 2000, where the company screened future-forward conceptual videos. It didn’t fix the company’s image problem or change the conversation. As one Microsoft executive who was there just texted me about Facebook, “I swear all they have to do is look at all the stupid things we did and then NOT DO THOSE THINGS but apparently they’ve decided to do them faster.”

Zuckerberg’s presentation also seemed to reflect a fear of irrelevance by trying to dial into a future that the kids might like. Indeed, some of the whistle-blower’s documents suggested that inside Facebook, there’s a real anxiety about losing the youngsters, who are moving onto more innovative platforms such as TikTok. Alas, the company’s new concept seemed more amenable to geeky, early adopters.

It was no surprise that Zuckerberg appeared huffy when it was suggested during one interview that there was any link between the scandals and the rebranding. “We started well before the current cycle [of news]. I think the current cycle clearly had nothing to bear on this. Even though I think some people might want to make that connection, I think that’s sort of a ridiculous thing. If anything, I think that this is not the environment that you would want to introduce a new brand in,” he said to Alex Heath of the Verge.

He kept returning to the theme of sprinting into the future in a desperate dash. “For me on a personal level, this feels like we’re running toward something that we’re excited about,” Zuckerberg said to Dylan Byers of Puck News.

Or running away. And, sadly, I fear it will do the trick, even if it didn’t in Microsoft’s case. Because arrogance combined with jazz hands, cool visuals and nifty gadgets-to-come tend to work in Silicon Valley. I can barely tolerate such tactics from true tech visionaries like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, who are, like them or not, profoundly innovative.

Thus: Sigh.

Not quite good enough

It’s not often that I agree with Glenn Greenwald, the author and journalist, but I, too, have concerns about the new effort by some very rich men to take on misinformation and disinformation with a new organization called Good Information. It’s being funded by left-leaning billionaires George Soros and Reid Hoffman and led by the high-profile Democratic operative Tara McGowan, who used to run a progressive nonprofit called Acronym.

Greenwald, who often throws incendiaries for sport (a talent that we share), tweeted that the idea that billionaires “are going to save society by using their limitless wealth to police the internet for what *they regard as* disinformation, extremism and hate speech is one of the creepiest and dystopic things I’ve heard.”

He’s right, even if it is, of course, a little more complex than that. We do need to find ways to deal with the increasingly toxic digital information environment that is overwhelming, relentless, amplified, and far too often weaponized. There has to be a solution somewhere between the reductive poles of let-it-fly and shut-it-down that doesn’t require stomping over free speech. And it’s incumbent on us to find it.

But this initiative, as Greenwald suggests, isn’t the right one, coming as it does from the elite, rather than lawmakers. The latter may be flawed, but at least they’re elected. Still, it is a private endeavor, funded with their giant piles of dough — in Hoffman’s case, made from the internet — so I suppose they can concoct whatever they want.

I will say that part of their plan, to fund local news, is a good one. That’s at least one small step by rich men, presumably for mankind.

A little contrition, for a change

If all this bums you out, which it does me, let me point to one thing I liked this week: A letter from C.E.O. Bobby Kotick of Activision Blizzard. His company, which makes the video game “Call of Duty,” is in the midst of a serious investigation of sexual harassment and discrimination at its Blizzard unit.

While the company is refuting some of the accusations, Kotick’s letter to employees was detailed about steps being taken, and he took responsibility firmly. “The guardrails weren’t in place everywhere to ensure that our values were being upheld. In some cases, people didn’t consistently feel comfortable reporting concerns, or their concerns weren’t always addressed promptly or properly. People were deeply let down and, for that, I am truly sorry.”

More important, the letter laid out some real initiatives, like increasing the percentage of women and nonbinary people, investing $250 million to develop more diverse talent, waiving arbitration requirements for sexual harassment and discrimination claims, and putting into place a zero-tolerance harassment policy.

Kotick also said he asked the board to pay him only $62,500 in total compensation, eschewing bonuses or equity. Let’s be clear; Kotick has already been well paid, especially in 2020 when he received stock awards worth nearly $150 million. In 2019, his $30.1 million pay package even attracted criticism from some investors.

Still, I have always liked Kotick, even when we sparred while he was on the board at Yahoo, so it was heartening to read the nonarrogant letter that others should think about emulating when they falter.

As Kotick noted: “I truly wish not a single employee had had an experience at work that resulted in hurt, humiliation, or worse — and to those who were affected, I sincerely apologize. You have my commitment that we will do everything possible to honor our values and create the workplace every member of this team deserves.”

Let’s hope he keeps that promise.

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