Mark Zuckerberg led the tech industry into a metaverse wasteland. What was unusual about the metaverse from the outside, circa 2021, was how little it offered to anyone but executives, who alternated between hyping it as imminent or far-off.
A few years on, Silicon Valley’s brief obsession with the metaverse has assumed the quality of a bad dream, half-remembered. Legless avatars beckoned us into barren digital landscapes to … stand around and talk about NFTs? Parcels of “property” sold for millions of dollars? It was a … virtual world? No? A mixed-reality game? No? A new frontier? An escape from meatspace? A layer on top of it? Companies raised and spent billions of dollars on the metaverse without ever quite getting their stories straight about what it was supposed to be or do — they didn’t just lack a good pitch beyond “getting in early,” they lacked a coherent concept to pitch in the first place.
The metaverse was a term in search of a trend; a trope in search of instantiation; a failed act of summoning by leaders who really thought they could control the weather. In an obituary published on Insider, Ed Zitron suggests the ultimate cause of death was the arrival of yet another next big thing:
The Metaverse fell seriously ill as the economy slowed and the hype around generative AI grew. Microsoft shuttered its virtual-workspace platform AltSpaceVR in January 2023, laid off the 100 members of its “industrial metaverse team,” and made a series of cuts to its HoloLens team. Disney shuttered its Metaverse division in March, and Walmart followed suit by ending its Roblox-based Metaverse projects. The billions of dollars invested and the breathless hype around a half-baked concept led to thousands — if not tens of thousands — of people losing their jobs.
But the Metaverse was officially pulled off life support when it became clear that Zuckerberg and the company that launched the craze had moved on to greener financial pastures. Zuckerberg declared in a March update that Meta’s “single largest investment is advancing AI and building it into every one of our products.”
He lays a great deal of responsibility for the hype at the feet — or in the space below the floating torso — of one man. “Zuckerberg misled everyone, burned tens of billions of dollars, convinced an industry of followers to submit to his quixotic obsession, and then killed it the second that another idea started to interest Wall Street,” he writes. Which is fair: Changing Facebook’s name to Meta was a bold attempt not just to rebrand a company but to set an industry agenda, and while it ultimately failed, it sort of worked, for a while.
One question worth dwelling on, however, is why it worked at all — and why people like Zuckerberg were so zealously committed to it, despite the massive costs. Low interest rates couldn’t have hurt. Crypto-adjacency had something to do with it. A sense of impending stagnation among tech giants surely provided some anxious fuel. Maybe they just read Snow Crash in high school and thought: What if that, but not cool? (“We’ve always been clear that our metaverse vision is a long-term one, and nothing about that has changed,” said Meta spokesperson Elana Widmann, in an emailed statement. “We are committed to our metaverse vision, and we’re seeing good momentum.”)
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