What is the Facebook metaverse? Mark Zuckerberg says he’s working on the future of the internet. This is why your data is at risk

In his 1992 novel Snow Crash, author Neal Stephenson introduced the concept of a “metaverse” – a fantastic virtual world that felt as real and present as reality itself.

Nearly three decades later, Mark Zuckerberg is dragging Stephenson’s vision into reality.

Last Thursday, the Facebook CEO and co-founder unveiled his company’s metaverse project during a virtual conference. Reminiscent of Stephenson’s book and other sci-fi staples like Tron or Enter Player One, Zuckerberg’s metaverse was set up as an “embodied internet” where you could play games, socialize, work, and more.

“We believe the metaverse will be the successor to mobile internet,” Zuckerberg said. “We will be able to feel present — as if we are with people, no matter how far apart we are.”

At the same conference, Zuckerberg revealed that Facebook’s holding company is changing its name to “Meta” to “reflect our commitment to this future,” according to Meta’s website. Notably, Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and other Meta properties will keep their name.

So what is the metaverse?

In practice, the metaverse would resemble a hodgepodge of existing and evolving technologies, all working together to create a tangible, digital layer on top of reality. It would be facilitated by virtual and augmented reality, accessible through glasses, goggles and other technology still in the works.

For example, instead of peering into the internet through a screen, users would put on virtual reality glasses and feel physically present in the virtual world of Meta. Ultimately, haptic technology could allow users to feel physical sensations, while biometric scanners pick up micro-motions that enable facial expression, Zuckerberg said.

“You can instantly teleport like a hologram to be in the office without commuting, at a concert with friends, or in your parents’ living room to catch up,” Zuckerberg wrote in a founder’s letter last Thursday.

Alternatively, people can bring digital aspects, such as 3D art, into the physical world through augmented reality – think games like Pokemon Go. Zuckerberg said these will be accessible through high-tech glasses that are still in production.

Other metaverse aspects would be accessible through more standardized technologies, such as computers and smartphones.

When is it coming here?

Zuckerberg acknowledged that the full metaverse is still years away. A Sept. 27 press release estimates that many of its products “will only be fully realized in the next 10-15 years,” and will require collaboration from policymakers, industry partners and experts.

Still, Zuckerberg said at his conference, “Within the next decade, the metaverse will reach a billion people, host hundreds of billions of dollars in digital commerce, and support jobs for millions of creators and developers.”

The rise of virtual reality will be “inevitable,” said Beth Coleman, author of Hello Avatar and associate professor of data and cities for the University of Toronto. Just as society has woven the internet into its cultural and socioeconomic fabric, Coleman expects virtual reality to eventually become just as integral to everyday life and the economy.

“In some ways, we’re already doing all those things online,” Coleman says. “How much time have you spent on zoom in the past 18 months? How many things do we buy online instead of going to a physical store?”

“…The metaverse is just the next step in this evolution of robust, real-time, visualized communication,” she said.

That Facebook (or Meta) is in charge, however, worries her.

“If the newly-branded Meta has a monopoly on the metaverse … that’s a very daunting prospect,” Coleman said. “Essentially, Mark Zuckerberg will rule the entire virtual world.”

Privacy Concerns

Anatoliy Gruzd, professor and research director at Ryerson University’s social media lab, said the metaverse may be more susceptible to data breaches.

“(The metaverse) will expose more user data on more platforms… by creating all these different places where people can interact and connect on other devices, it creates more opportunities for privacy issues,” he said.

At the same time, the metaverse could allow for much more data collection, from user biometrics to facial recognition. This is worrying, Gruzd said, given Facebook’s track record of privacy and security.

For example, in 2018, a whistleblower revealed that Cambridge Analytica, a company linked to both Donald Trump’s 2016 election team and the winning Brexit campaign, collected the private information of up to 87 million Facebook users in 2014 without consent.

Despite discovering the vulnerability in 2015, Facebook did not warn users and took limited steps to secure and recover the stolen information.

Wrong information and radicalization

Gruzd was also sure that Facebook’s current problems, such as political polarization, hate speech and misinformation, would permeate the metaverse.

“I guarantee you that the same issues we’re seeing on social media now will exist in other forms of connected reality, simply because we’re humans,” he said. “The same factors that drive antisocial behavior online and some of the other trends like the spread of misinformation (won’t stop), there’s just coming up a new place to do that.”

The release is especially prescient in light of the Facebook Papers, a trove of internal Facebook documents disclosed to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission by whistleblower Frances Haugen.

The papers revealed that months before the January 6 uprising, Facebook rolled back measures to prevent hate speech and misinformation; used meager measures to counter hate speech and misinformation in the developing world; actively favored user engagement over security, using algorithms that favor outrage over all other engagement indicators; and much more.

“Naive visions”

Taina Bucher, associate professor of media studies at the University of Oslo in Norway and author of “Facebook”, warned that these are still the first days of a product launch. Zuckerberg is trying to hype the product with “rhetoric and strategic communication,” she said.

“So now begins the task of getting to the bottom of these weird, hopelessly naive visions. What are the consequences and consequences of all this?”

The metaverse is so vast and multifaceted that there will be unforeseen problems, not to mention all of Facebook’s existing problems, she said – “problems are just waiting to arise.”

Bucher also wondered how a system designed by a multi-billionaire would accommodate people and perspectives from around the world.

“It just feels very privileged. I’m pretty sure (the metaverse) can only be imagined from a very specific place, and that place is so exclusive and not representative of the rest of the world,” Bucher said.

“It’s easy to laugh about it now… but it could become reality, because Facebook is trying to make it a reality. And then it might not be so funny anymore.”

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