How Mark Zuckerberg got lost in a bizarre virtual world

Critics of Zuckerberg have claimed the Meta rebrand in October 2021 was little more than a PR stunt to distract from the company’s problems.

“The embarrassing thing is that journalists and policymakers fell for it,” McNamee says. “Conversation shifted to the metaverse, framed as the next big thing, instead of the train wreck it actually is.” A Meta spokesman described the claim as “nonsense”.

Meta and Zuckerberg have insisted that many of Haugen’s claims painted a “false picture” about the company. The company has argued that the data she revealed was mostly research conducted by the company as it tried to combat harms.

But former Facebook insiders believe there is also an element of savvy PR: the Meta relaunch has created a fresh start for the company. One source says: “Mark was impatient with the down and dirty compromises of running a massive social media platform. It is a bit of escapism to do something innovative.”

Not everyone agrees. “They’ve put their money where their mouth is on it,” A second source notes. “Mark had a vision and ultimately was an engineer and a techy.”

So serious is the chief executive’s commitment that he has reportedly told staff to start referring to themselves as “Metamates”. 

Whatever the truth, the stakes for Facebook, Meta and Zuckerberg are high. Tens of billions of dollars will need to be sunk into bleeding edge technology without a clear path to making money.

While Facebook and Instagram’s bread and butter has been making billions of dollars on advertising, there is no obvious parallel in the metaverse yet. 

As Brian Wieser, an advertising and technology analyst at GroupM, notes: “It is so far out from being a reality.” 

“There is no paid media in the conventional sense,” he says, adding that “at some point people will just start re-labelling in-game advertising as metaverse advertising.”

Zuckerberg’s gamble

Meta has identified that it could be left behind if it doesn’t act now, says one former employee. “There is this sense that Meta is solely dominant, but Facebook has always said it nearly died in 2012 due to mobile phones. The next thing could wipe it out. That is the paranoia. Not just the next app, but the next computing paradigm.”

Wills, of Disguise, adds: “There’s hundreds of millions of people attending these [virtual events], so that’s the threat Meta sees. They are saying: ‘Okay, we need to be developing these worlds to capture this younger generation’s attention’.”

A Meta spokesman said: “We have a long way to go before the Metaverse is realised. What Mark shared in 2021 was a statement of intent – an aspirational vision of where we think the entire industry is headed and where we hope things will go.” 

Zuckerberg is preparing for the fight of his life. In a recent video posted online, he pulls on his boxing gloves and throws a series of jabs and kicks before tackling Khai Wu, a professional UFC fighter, to the ground. 

The video of Zuckerberg sparring, which he says helps him cool off from the rigours of running Meta, comes as he prepares for the company’s Connect conference next month. Zuckerberg will have to show some of the fruits of the last year of research and development into the metaverse.

New versions of Meta’s Quest VR headset and its more advanced “Project Cambria” device could be revealed. But a more fully realised version of Zuckerberg’s vision remains a long way off.

Zuckerberg’s gamble is that the metaverse can reverse the decline of Meta’s other social media apps. He has to convince billions of people to enter the metaverse – and then find a way to dominate the new medium. 

Meanwhile, Zuckerberg is looking increasingly isolated. The chief executive frequently works remotely from his $100m villa in Hawaii and some of his closest allies have quit. 

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