The descent of Mark Zuckerberg

Mark Zuckerberg is in big trouble. He turned away from the drudgery of running Facebook to focus almost entirely on his “metaverse,” a vision of the internet where people enter interactive virtual spaces using virtual reality (VR) headsets. It pledged to invest at least $10 billion a year for a decade, and investors were told earnings would be correspondingly lower over the next decade. He saw the digital future once. Can he repeat the trick?

So far, it seems not. His company’s share price more than halved, wiping $600 billion off its market value. Shareholders are worried. Meta must cut spending by at least 10% in the coming months, partly through layoffs. Further cuts are expected.

Last week’s Meta Conference – held in the Metaverse, for good reason – failed to change the mood. Announcements of a $1,499 VR headset and the dramatic introduction of legs for metaverse avatars haven’t convinced markets that this is really the future: Meta’s stock price has fallen sharply 25% over the past month. Zuckerberg’s personal wealth has shrunk by more than $76 billion this year so far.

There’s an obvious problem with Zuckerberg’s vision: who wants to wear a clunky VR headset, staring at outdated, nausea-inducing graphics? In a world where most of us use the internet through our cell phones, can this really be the future? The numbers suggest not: Meta predicted 500,000 active monthly users on its VR platform, Horizon Worlds (accessible through VR headsets), by the end of this year; the current figure is less than 200,000. Leaked internal documents show that most of those who visit Horizon tend not to return after the first month. Even Meta staff would be unsure about the product: “The simple truth is, if we don’t like it, how can we expect our users to like it?” wrote Meta’s Vice President of Metaverse, Vishal Shah, in a note last month.

Even the small slice of people who think the Metaverse is the future don’t want Zuckerberg in their club. The Metaverse isn’t meant to be dominated by a handful of tech giants like it happened to social media. The utopian idea – known in Silicon Valley as “Web 3.0” – is decentralization, aided by technologies such as cryptocurrencies and blockchain. The man who coined the term “metaverse”, science fiction author Neal Stephenson, is actually part of a rival virtual reality team producing “THEE METAVERSE”, which will be powered by blockchain. There are many others.

Despite this, Zuckerberg is betting his house on the metaverse: Meta employees tell me he’s all but stopped running the beleaguered Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp networks. Why worry about solving their problems if the end goal is to make them obsolete?

Facebook may have been outdated for a decade or more now, but until recently it maintained an impressive revenue stream thanks to somewhat dodgy activity tracking on mobile phones: if you had the Facebook app, it could see elements of what you were doing outside. this application. This provided useful insights for ad targeting, on Facebook and elsewhere, keeping profits high for years. Then Apple introduced the “ask app not to track” option. Over 97% of users have opted out of ad tracking – and Facebook’s revenue has been hit hard.

Sometimes these companies seem too big to fail, but in the world of technology, empires can crumble as quickly as they are built. Ask Rupert Murdoch: In 2005, he shelled out $580 million for MySpace when it looked like the hottest internet company in the world. Two years later, it had 300 million registered users and was valued at $12 billion. Yet it was overtaken by Facebook (launched a year after MySpace) and later transferred to an online advertising company for around $35 million. When users decide to abandon one platform in favor of another, the change can be abrupt.

Instagram is also tanking because of TikTok. Zuckerberg’s site recently attempted to offer a TikTok-like feature of short video “reels”. This type of copycat tactic worked well for the company when Snapchat was the new rival. This time, however, such an imitation was not well received. Users – including the Kardashians – hated the new TikTok-style feed so much that Instagram was forced to roll back the change. Meanwhile, the latest social media app to make waves, BeReal, has explicitly marketed itself as the anti-Instagram option. It sends a notification at a random time of day asking you to post a photo of everything you do. Spontaneity is a reaction to the over-editing of Instagram posts.

Despite his unpopularity among tech figures, Zuckerberg seems set to leave all of that behind in his move to the Metaverse. The big question is whether he can build something responsibly. How can we say that the metaverse does not become a means of being sexually abused and harassed in virtual reality? The the wall street journal recently reported that when one of their female reporters visited one of Horizon’s most popular virtual worlds, the Soapstone Comedy Club, a virtual room user asked her to expose herself. With a current one-to-two male user ratio on Horizon Worlds, this type of behavior is likely to be quite prevalent.

Facebook’s problems are well known, from child pornography to jihadist material to election interference and everything in between. Last month, Amnesty International called on the company to pay more than £150 billion in compensation to Rohingya Muslims for spreading hate speech in Myanmar. It wasn’t Zuckerberg’s only puzzle either. The same week, Instagram came under the spotlight during the inquest into the death of British teenager Molly Russell. The 14-year-old left an Instagram post saying “I’m just not good enough” before taking her own life in 2017. Her family say content she saw on Instagram depicting self-harm and suicide “influenced her”. Shares. The coroner recorded it as “an act of self-harm while suffering from depression and the negative effects of online content”. However, Instagram’s head of wellbeing boldly claimed that the content Molly viewed was safe for children.

At first glance, WhatsApp might look like a simpler proposition. But this app, which Zuckerberg bought for just under $20 billion eight years ago, is also causing problems, both financial (he hasn’t found a way to monetize it) and political (encryption end-to-end has led to friction with governments globally).

Meta employees I’ve spoken to say they’re desperate that their boss has checked out his three apps and isn’t interested in suggestions on how to improve them. “It could be quite frustrating – we would try to point out what I think are reasonable and universal technological or logistical realities, but they would be almost ignored,” said a former Meta staffer who worked in Europe. Zuckerberg seems to be trying to do enough to make it look like he’s solving the problems, while keeping them away from himself. Nick Clegg’s role is to manage policy for Facebook (now the UK’s No.1 source of written reporting), while the company has set up an expensive independent oversight board to adjudicate its moderation decisions. more prickly.

Another problem Zuckerberg faces is that while he was once able to buy his market dominance, he is now being smothered by competition authorities with a much better grip on Meta’s current size. . These authorities are more wary of Meta buying out potential rivals like it did with Instagram and WhatsApp. This week, UK authorities successfully challenged its purchase of gif company Giphy, which is hardly a multi-billion dollar powerhouse.

Zuckerberg isn’t yet 40 – so it’s no surprise that even with his $50 billion fortune, he doesn’t feel ready to retire just yet. There is no one inside Meta who could force him out because his shareholding is too large. But while he still seems to need Meta – and still wants to have another career milestone achievement – it’s becoming increasingly clear that Meta doesn’t need him.

Four years ago, the founder of Facebook revealed his admiration for Augustus Caesar. Zuckerberg honeymooned in Rome (his wife joked that Augustus was the third of their trip), one of his daughters is named August and his weird haircut is said to be inspired by Augustus’ style . But as he fiddles around the metaverse, oblivious to the fact that the rest of his empire is crumbling, he begins to look more like Nero.

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