Editorial

The 'metaverse' is a perfect distraction for embattled Facebook & Epic Games

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The word "metaverse" is currently meaningless, and mainly serves as a distraction from the problems of some of the companies spearheading it — including Facebook and Epic Games.

There's a good chance that you've heard a lot about the metaverse lately. There's also a good chance you might still be confused by the very term.

That's because the term "metaverse" can't mean anything until it's properly defined. Until then, the concept, for some companies, is only serving as a valuable distraction from more significant problems.

The Metaverse, undefined

In theory, the "metaverse" is a network of connected 3D worlds that users explore in virtual or augmented reality. It's not a new idea. The concept of the "metaverse" has been around for decades. Neal Stephenson, for example, explored the concept of a "metaverse" in his 1992 novel "Snow Crash." And then, there's the famous — or infamous, depending on your point of view — 1992 film Lawnmower Man developed from an unrelated Stephen King story.

However, only recently has the "metaverse" been something in the media spotlight. Partly, that's because of the increasing prevalence of virtual reality systems. In other words, it hasn't seemed feasible until recently.

It's also partly because of companies pushing the concept. While it's largely been spearheaded by firms like Facebook and Epic Games, everyone from the cryptocurrency community to legacy brands Coca-Cola are now jumping on board.

Despite the buzz, it's hard to get a firm grasp on what the metaverse actually is or what it can do. That's because it hasn't yet been adequately defined in a way that means anything to the average person.

Definitions are in constant flux

The definition of the metaverse is constantly changing. Some describe it as a layer on top of the existing internet. Others see it as a potential virtual space where users — as digital avatars — can attend work meetings, watch movies, and hang out with their friends.

Even the word "metaverse" itself is unclear. Does it refer to a single metaverse or simply one of many metaverses? You won't have a clear-cut answer even after reading a few press releases.

While there will undoubtedly be some kind of actual definition develop in the next decade, today, the term "metaverse" is a catchy buzzword that doesn't really mean anything substantial.

While companies have been working on similar concepts for years, the term "metaverse" really entered the cultural zeitgeist when Facebook rebooted it in 2021 — and rebranded itself as Meta.

The metaverse is a useful distraction for Facebook

Facebook officially changed its name to Meta in October 2021. At the time, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the new name reflected "who we are and what we hope to build."

There's a chance that Meta (or Facebook) is sincere in its belief that the metaverse is the future. On the other hand, the timing of the company's metaverse-focused announcements was awfully convenient.

Think about the news surrounding Facebook in October 2021. The company was mired in a firestorm of controversy because of multiple whistleblowers and a leak of internal documents.

Facebook, or the company now know as Meta, is positioning itself as a driver of the metaverse
Facebook, or the company now know as Meta, is positioning itself as a driver of the metaverse

Those sources and leaked documents suggested that Facebook allowed hate speech and disinformation to run rampant on its platforms. They also indicated that the company knew that its platforms were bad for the mental health of teenagers — and that it wasn't doing anything meaningful about it.

Let's not forget Facebook's prior scandals, either. Remember Cambridge Analytics, the mishandling of facial recognition data, and numerous other privacy incidents.

The fact that the media is no longer focused on those issues means that Facebook's gambit worked — at least to a degree. Of course, the news cycle marches on, and many people still find Facebook distasteful. But even then, it's still up to consumers, governments, and others to look past the shiny new technology and hold Facebook to account.

Epic Games

Of course, Facebook isn't the only company that is investing in the metaverse space. Not every company that does is trying to distract consumers from something, but one other company comes to mind: Epic Games.

Epic Games has been investing boatloads of money into the metaverse for years. Some analysts and industry watchers believe it might be beating Facebook in that regard.

However, let's also not forget Epic Games' own controversies here. Specifically, the studio's largely failed attempt to inflict massive changes on Apple's App Store business.

Back in 2020, Epic Games intentionally broke Apple's App Store rules by implementing a third-party payment system in "Fortnite." That alone is a violation, but Epic Games also explicitly sidestepped Apple's reviewers by adding the feature in a hotfix. If that wasn't damning enough, Epic Games filed a premeditated lawsuit and marketing campaign against Apple.

Epic Games made itself out to be a victim and a champion of user freedom. However, it's safe to say the company wasn't launching its battle against Apple out of the goodness of its own heart. It likely just wanted more of its players' money.

Epic Games' attempt to sidestep Apple's cut of app and in-app purchases hasn't worked thus far. The games studio lost its lawsuit against the iPhone maker. Besides one count, Apple largely won.

Without delving into legal matters beyond the scope of this article, there's a good chance that Apple will prevail over Epic's appeals.

The dodge here isn't as apparent as Facebook's, but there's a similar level of distraction. Until the metaverse becomes more solid, it'll still serve as a helpful diversion for Epic Games.

'The Metaverse' is meaningless — currently

There are plenty of signs that interest and investment in the metaverse is heating up. Facebook, for example, isn't going to hold its F8 developer conference in 2022 since its pivot to Meta. Instead, it'll focus on "building the metaverse."

However, the definition isn't going to be decided by Facebook or Epic Games alone. It'll take a multitude of companies — including Apple and its own VR efforts — to ultimately decide what the metaverse is.

Although companies will likely play a huge role in what the metaverse becomes, it won't be solely up to them. How consumers use the metaverse will drive its development and refinement, too. Down the road, as regulation catches up to technology, there will likely be a government or legal definition.

Apple's metaverse contributions have been quiet so far, but the company is well-known for related tech.
Apple's metaverse contributions have been quiet so far, but the company is well-known for related tech.

And, again, this will be an industry-wide effort. While Facebook and Epic Games get most of the media spotlight, Apple is also quietly working on virtual reality technology.

Apple VR efforts include a rumored mixed-reality headset that could leverage the company's existing AR endeavors — such as ARKit — and create new experiences for the company. In addition to a device meant to compete with the Oculus lineup, Apple is also reportedly working on a more augmented reality-focused "Apple Glass" device.

Apple CEO Tim Cook himself has even publicly noted that Apple sees the potential in the metaverse and is "investing accordingly." While Apple isn't as strongly associated with the metaverse as other companies, there's no doubt that it'll play a big role. Some analysts believe Apple and Facebook could be on a "collision course" in the metaverse.

Until the concept is more fleshed out, however, it's important to take any outlandish metaverse claims with a grain of salt. And it's probably wise to think about what a company might have to gain by pushing its own metaverse plans — especially if it seems like fluff.