Facebook’s CEO on why the social network is becoming ‘a metaverse company’
As June came to an end, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told his employees about an ambitious new initiative. The future of the company would go far beyond its current project of building a set of connected social apps and some hardware to support them. Instead, he said, Facebook would strive to build a maximalist, interconnected set of experiences straight out of sci-fi — a world known as the metaverse.
The company’s divisions focused on products for communities, creators, commerce, and virtual reality would increasingly work to realize this vision, he said in a remote address to employees. “What I think is most interesting is how these themes will come together into a bigger idea,” Zuckerberg said. “Our overarching goal across all of these initiatives is to help bring the metaverse to life.”
The metaverse is having a moment. Coined in Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson’s 1992 sci-fi novel, the term refers to a convergence of physical, augmented, and virtual reality in a shared online space. Earlier this month, The New York Times explored how companies and products including Epic Games’ Fortnite, Roblox, and even Animal Crossing: New Horizons increasingly had metaverse-like elements. (Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney has been discussing his desire to contribute to a metaverse for many months now.)
In January 2020, an influential essay by the venture capitalist Matthew Ball set out to identify key characteristics of a metaverse. Among them: it has to span the physical and virtual worlds; contain a fully fledged economy; and offer “unprecedented interoperability” — users have to be able to take their avatars and goods from one place in the metaverse to another, no matter who runs that particular part of it. Critically, no one company will run the metaverse — it will be an “embodied internet,” Zuckerberg said, operated by many different players in a decentralized way.
Watching Zuckerberg’s presentation, I couldn’t decide which was more audacious: his vision itself or his timing. Zuckerberg’s announced intention to build a more maximalist version of Facebook, spanning social presence, office work, and entertainment, comes at a time when the US government is attempting to break his current company up. A package of bills making its way through Congress would potentially force the company to spin out Instagram and WhatsApp, and limit Facebook’s ability to make future acquisitions — or offer services connected to its hardware products.
And even if tech regulation stalls in the United States — historically not a bad bet — a thriving metaverse would raise questions both familiar and strange about how the virtual space is governed, how its contents would be moderated, and what its existence would do to our shared sense of reality. We’re still getting our arms wrapped around the two-dimensional version of social platforms; wrangling the 3D version could be exponentially harder.
At the same time, Zuckerberg said, the metaverse will bring enormous opportunity to individual creators and artists; to individuals who want to work and own homes far from today’s urban centers; and to people who live in places where opportunities for education or recreation are more limited. A realized metaverse could be the next best thing to a working teleportation device, he says. With the company’s Oculus division, which produces the Quest headset, Facebook is trying to develop one.
After I watched his speech, Zuckerberg and I had a conversation. (The metaverse being unavailable to us at press time, we used Zoom.) We discussed his vision for an embodied internet, the challenges of governing it, and gender imbalance in virtual reality today. And with President Biden’s fierce criticism of Facebook’s failures in removing anti-vaccine content in the headlines, I asked him about that, too.
“It’s a little bit like fighting crime in a city,” he told me. “No one expects that you’re ever going to fully solve crime in a city.”
This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
Mark Zuckerberg, welcome to The Vergecast.
Thanks, Casey. It’s good to be here. We’ve got a lot to go through.
As always, there’s a lot to discuss with you — and the White House is demanding Facebook do more to remove vaccine misinformation, which I know is on a lot of people’s minds right now. I want to get to that, but I want to start with this talk you gave internally at Facebook a few weeks ago, which I recently had a chance to watch. You told your employees that your future vision of Facebook is not the two-dimensional version of it that we’re using today, but something called the metaverse. So what is a metaverse and what parts of it does Facebook plan to build?
This is a big topic. The metaverse is a vision that spans many companies — the whole industry. You can think about it as the successor to the mobile internet. And it’s certainly not something that any one company is going to build, but I think a big part of our next chapter is going to hopefully be contributing to building that, in partnership with a lot of other companies and creators and developers. But you can think about the metaverse as an embodied internet, where instead of just viewing content — you are in it. And you feel present with other people as if you were in other places, having different experiences that you couldn’t necessarily do on a 2D app or webpage, like dancing, for example, or different types of fitness.
I think a lot of people, when they think about the metaverse, they think about just virtual reality — which I think is going to be an important part of that. And that’s clearly a part that we’re very invested in, because it’s the technology that delivers the clearest form of presence. But the metaverse isn’t just virtual reality. It’s going to be accessible across all of our different computing platforms; VR and AR, but also PC, and also mobile devices and game consoles. Speaking of which, a lot of people also think about the metaverse as primarily something that’s about gaming. And I think entertainment is clearly going to be a big part of it, but I don’t think that this is just gaming. I think that this is a persistent, synchronous environment where we can be together, which I think is probably going to resemble some kind of a hybrid between the social platforms that we see today, but an environment where you’re embodied in it.
So that can be 3D — it doesn’t have to be. You might be able to jump into an experience, like a 3D concert or something, from your phone, so you can get elements that are 2D or elements that are 3D. I’d love to go through a bunch of the use cases in more detail, but overall, I think that this is going to be a really big part of the next chapter for the technology industry, and it’s something that we’re very excited about.
It just touches a lot of the biggest themes that we’re working on. Think about things like community and creators as one, or digital commerce as a second, or building out the next set of computing platforms, like virtual and augmented reality, to give people that sense of presence. I think all of these different initiatives that we have at Facebook today will basically ladder up together to contribute to helping to build this metaverse vision.
And my hope, if we do this well, I think over the next five years or so, in this next chapter of our company, I think we will effectively transition from people seeing us as primarily being a social media company to being a metaverse company. And obviously, all of the work that we’re doing across the apps that people use today contribute directly to this vision in terms of building community and creators. So there’s a lot to jump into here. I’m curious what direction you want to take this in. But this is something that I’m spending a lot of time on, thinking a lot about, we’re working on a ton. And I think it’s just a big part of the next chapter for the work that we’re going to do in the whole industry.
This feels like a fairly far-future vision, even though parts of it are visible now and coming together. I think overall, it feels like a very maximalist version of what the internet could be. You talk to employees about, “from the moment we wake up to the moment we go to bed, being able to jump into the metaverse to do almost anything you can imagine.” And probably some of us are using the internet that way already.
But this description feels more like the metaverse that might be familiar to us from books like Ready Player One or Snow Crash, or maybe like Fortnite today, where some of the most important aspects of our lives, including our work, are being lived and done inside these virtual spaces. Are those good analogs for the kind of world that you’re talking about?
Well, what I’m excited about is helping people deliver and experience a much stronger sense of presence with the people they care about, the people they work with, the places they want to be. And the reality is that today with the mobile internet, we already have something that a lot of people access from the moment they wake up to when they go to bed. I don’t know about you, but a lot of mornings, I reach for my phone by my bedside before I even put on my glasses, just to make sure, get whatever text messages I got during the middle of the night and make sure that nothing has gone wrong that I need to jump into immediately upon waking up. So I don’t think that this is primarily about being engaged with the internet more. I think it’s about being engaged more naturally.
And today, I think about the computing platforms that we have. We have these phones. They’re relatively small. A lot of the time that we’re spending, we’re basically mediating our lives and our communication through these small, glowing rectangles. I think that that’s not really how people are made to interact. A lot of the meetings that we have today, you’re looking at a grid of faces on a screen. That’s not how we process things either. We’re used to being in a room with people and having a sense of space where if you’re sitting to my right, then that means I’m also sitting to your left, so we have some shared sense of space in common. When you speak, it’s coming from my right. It’s not just all coming from the same place in front of me.
I don’t know how much you’ve had this experience, but I have a bunch, in work meetings over the last year, where I sometimes find it hard to remember what meeting someone said something in because they all look the same and they all blend together. And I think part of that is because we don’t have this sense of presence in space. What virtual and augmented reality can do, and what the metaverse broadly is going to help people experience, is a sense of presence that I think is just much more natural in the way that we’re made to interact. And I think it will be more comfortable. The interactions that we have will be a lot richer, they’ll feel real. In the future, instead of just doing this over a phone call, you’ll be able to sit as a hologram on my couch, or I’ll be able to sit as a hologram on your couch, and it’ll actually feel like we’re in the same place, even if we’re in different states or hundreds of miles apart. So I think that that is really powerful.
I’ve been thinking about some of this stuff since I was in middle school and just starting to code. I remember when I was in math class, I would have my notebook and I’d basically just sit there and write code and ideas for things I wanted to go code when I got home from school that day. And some of them I was able to do back then, but one of the things that I really wanted to build was basically the sense of an embodied internet where you could be in the environment and teleport to different places and be with friends.
I think some combination of the fact that I probably didn’t know enough math to pull it off then, and just the technology was decades away from really being ready to do that in a good way — that wasn’t the direction that I gravitated in originally, in terms of building different social experiences. But this is something that I’ve been excited about. I’ve thought that this would be the holy grail of social interactions from well before when I started Facebook. And it’s really exciting to me that now the next set of platforms are going to be able to do this.
One of the reasons why we’re investing so much in augmented and virtual reality is mobile phones kind of came around at the same time as Facebook, so we didn’t really get to play a big role in shaping the development of those platforms. So they didn’t really develop in a very natural way, from my perspective. People aren’t meant to navigate things in terms of a grid of apps. I think we interact much more naturally when we think about being present with other people. We orient ourselves and think about the world through people and the interactions we have with people and what we do with them. And I think if we can help build the next set of computing platforms and experiences across that in a way that’s more natural and lets us feel more present with people, I think that’ll be a very positive thing.
I’m not sure that people would necessarily find it more natural to work all day wearing a VR helmet, but maybe it’s something we get used to. But I am really interested in some of the things that you’ve said about the way a metaverse could create jobs that don’t exist today, like whole economies springing up inside of this metaverse. What novel new forms of work do you see happening in this world you want to build?
So, let me get to that in a second. But just to go back to your comment about people not working in [a VR helmet] all day long — there’s clearly an evolution, or multiple, in the technology that are going to need to be possible, that will need to happen before this is the main way that people work. But I think we’re going to be there by the end of this decade. Today, the VR headsets, they’re still kind of a bit clunky, they may be a bit heavier than you would ideally like them to be. There need to be advances in being able to express yourself and having higher resolution, being able to read text better, a number of things like that. But we’re getting there, and each version is better and better. And Quest 2 has been a real hit so far in terms of how people are using it. I’ve been surprised.
We planned on it mostly being used for games and thought that a lot of these social interactions or things around work wouldn’t come until later, but a lot of the biggest experiences on Quest 2, that people spend the most time in, are already just hanging out socially. And there are a number of things around work and productivity. There are even experiences that I really hadn’t thought about, things like fitness. These apps like Supernatural and FitXR, which you can kind of think about it like Peloton, but instead of having a bike or a treadmill, the device is your VR headset and you’re basically taking a class in there, where you’re boxing or dancing. And it’s really fun. I think if you haven’t tried it out, it’s something that a lot of people are enjoying.
But going back to your point about work, and how this is going to work, I also don’t think this is going to be all VR. I think it’s going to be AR too. And part of the reason why VR is available, and why you have things like the Quest 2 years before you’re going to have AR glasses is because it’s a little more socially acceptable to wear something like a VR headset in the comfort of your own home. But I think to get AR glasses that we wear around throughout the day, they have to be normal-looking glasses, right? So you’re basically cramming all of these materials to build what we would’ve thought of as a supercomputer 10 years ago into the frame of glasses that are about five millimeters thick — you have computer chips, and networking chips, and holographic wave guides, and things for sensing and mapping out the world, and batteries and speakers, all this stuff, and it just needs to fit into these glasses — so that is a real challenge.
And I actually would go so far as to say that I think that might be one of, if not the biggest technological challenge that our industry will face in the next decade. We tend to really celebrate things that are big, right? But I actually think miniaturizing things and getting a supercomputer to fit into a pair of glasses is actually one of the bigger challenges. But once you have that, so you have those glasses and you have your VR headset, I think that’s going to enable a bunch of really interesting use cases.
So, one is you will be able to, with basically a snap of your fingers, pull up your perfect workstation. So anywhere you go, you can walk into a Starbucks, you can sit down, you can be drinking your coffee and kind of wave your hands and you can have basically as many monitors as you want, all set up, whatever size you want them to be, all preconfigured to the way you had it when you were at your home before. And you can just bring that with you wherever you want.
If you want to talk to someone, you’re working through a problem, instead of just calling them on the phone, they can teleport in, and then they can see all the context that you have. They can see your five monitors, or whatever it is, and the documents or all the windows of code that you have, or a 3D model that you’re working on. And they can stand next to you and interact, and then in a blink they can teleport back to where they were and kind of be in a separate place.
So I think for focus time and individual productivity, I think being able to have your ideal setup, we call this “infinite office.” We already have a version of this for our VR headsets, and it’s improving very quickly. I think it’s going to be great for multitasking and for getting your environment set up everywhere. There’ve been a lot of studies that show that people are more effective when they can pull up multiple of the things that they’re working on that are related to each other at once. If you’re coding, having multiple windows open rather than single-tasking, that’s a big deal. So I think that that’s going to be one.
The other area that I think is going to be pretty exciting is basically doing meetings. And I already do a bunch of meetings in VR. Even though the avatars aren’t as realistic today as they will be in a few years, in a lot of ways it already feels almost more real, and more like you have a sense of space, than a Zoom call, because you have the shared sense of space. So if someone is sitting to your right, you’re sitting to their left. If you’re sitting in a circle, everyone can kind of remember what order people were in. There’s spatial audio. You look over to the head of the table and there could be a screen there, where people who can’t be in VR or AR can videoconference in and be a part of your meeting from outside. You can project and different people can share as many documents as they want. So it’s no more of this, “Oh, I can only share one document at a time,” because everyone, you presume, only has one screen. And in VR, people can pull up as many screens as they want so you can share as much context as you want during a meeting. You have a whiteboard, people can draw. It’s pretty wild.
And we’re clearly just at the beginning of this. So I think that that’s going to be very exciting and people can customize their office space, and have it feel like what their physical office is and just be a digital continuation of that. So I think that’s pretty neat.
But then I think what you were also asking about is, aside from doing the kind of knowledge work that we would typically do in offices today, but instead doing it in the metaverse, I do think that there will be entirely new types of work too. So in terms of designing places where people hang out, this is going to be a massive part of the creator economy, I think. You’ll have individual creators designing experiences and places. You’ll have artists doing things, whether it’s a comedy show ... We did this comedy show on our team in Horizon the other day and it was just kind of funny, you feel like you’re there with other people, and there’s something to it that’s a little more engaging than just all looking at a screen independently and watching it yourself. There’s just something to the energy.
What was this show? Did you tell jokes during the show?
I was not the comedian, fortunately for the other participants who were there. But no, the team that’s developing Horizon, which is a big part of our internal efforts in this space, they try to do fun things like this, just to kind of build out and test how the development of the work is going. And I thought that that was pretty funny. But you’d get concerts in there. You have this whole set of creators who are building out different experiences, ranging from an individual creator to teams of dozens of people building AAA games, where you can have your avatar and you can go across these experiences. You can teleport instantaneously. You can bring your outfits and your digital objects with you. So I think that there’s going to be a whole economy around this.
And I guess one broader point that I’d make here is, one lesson that I’ve taken from running Facebook over the last five years is that I used to think about our job as building products that people love to use. But you know, now I think we just need to have a more holistic view of this. It’s not enough to just build something that people like to use. It has to create opportunity and broadly be a positive thing for society in terms of economic opportunity, in terms of being something that, socially, everyone can participate in, that it can be inclusive. So we’re really designing the work that we’re doing in the space with those principles from the ground up. This isn’t just a product that we’re building. It needs to be an ecosystem. So the creators who we work with, the developers, they all need to be able to not only sustain themselves, but hire a lot of folks.
And this is something that I hope eventually millions of people will be working in and creating content for — whether it’s experiences, or spaces, or virtual goods, or virtual clothing, or doing work helping to curate and introduce people to spaces and keep it safe. I just think this is going to be a huge economy and frankly, I think that that needs to exist. This needs to be a rising tide that lifts a lot of boats. We can’t just think about this as a product that we’re building.
Yeah, so let’s talk about some of those principles that you’re going to use to build this. Because I know some people are going to hear this vision for the metaverse and just reflexively wish that you wouldn’t build it. They’ll say, Facebook wasn’t governed effectively when it was in two dimensions, and trying to build it in three dimensions is pure hubris. And people feel that way for different reasons. But one that has come up a lot over the past couple of weeks is misinformation. President Biden has since walked this back, but on Friday he was talking about misinformation related to COVID vaccines. And he said, “Facebook is killing people.” How do you respond to the idea that Facebook has played a role in making people hesitant about getting vaccinated?
Well, I think that our basic role here — and I appreciate you mentioning the fullness of the context there, because I do think that the president offered more context on that after his original comment. There’s multiple prongs here. One part of it is we need to basically help push out authoritative information. We do that. We’ve helped, I think it’s more than 2 billion people around the world, access authoritative information about COVID over the course of the pandemic by putting it at the top of Facebook and Instagram. We’ve helped millions of people, including here in the US, basically go use our vaccine finder tool to actually go get their vaccine. So I’m quite confident, just looking at the analytics and the net impact, that we’ve been a positive force here.
And in fact, if you look at vaccine acceptance amongst people who use our products, it has increased quite a bit over the last few months. So to the extent that there are pockets of the population for which hesitancy is growing, that hasn’t been the trend of what we’ve seen overall on Facebook. And I also think that broadly, when you’re looking at what’s going on in any given country, it’s useful to look at this from the perspective that Facebook and Instagram and all these tools are widely used in almost every country in the world. So if one country is not reaching its vaccine goal, but other countries that all these same social media tools are in are doing just fine, then I think that that should lead you to conclude that the social media platforms are not the decisive element in terms of what is going on there.
But nonetheless, I do think we have a big role and we have a range of strategies that we employ. We take down content that could lead to imminent harm, and we flag and decrease the distribution of content that our fact checkers flag as misinformation, but that is not going to lead to imminent harm. So we treat those two differently, and I think that’s the right thing to do. So overall, I think we’ve taken a lot of efforts on this. I think our company has made a lot of progress in this space over the last five years since the 2016 election. It’s tough to say that anyone was well-prepared for the pandemic, but I think we’d built a lot of systems that I think could really come in handy on this. And overall I’m quite proud of how we’ve shown up and what I think our net impact has been here.
But managing the integrity of these communities, whether you’re talking about misinformation on Facebook or other types of harm — we track about 20 different types of harm, everything from terrorism to child exploitation to incitement of violence. There are lots of different types of harm. You need to build specific systems to handle them. We have, I think at this point it’s more than 1,000 people working on building the AI and technical systems. And I think it’s more than 30,000 or 35,000 people helping to review the content. And that kind of apparatus that we built up I think will carry naturally to all the work that we’ll do going forward.
But when you think about the integrity of a system like this, it’s a little bit like fighting crime in a city. No one expects that you’re ever going to fully solve crime in a city. The police department’s goal is not to make it so that if there’s any crime that happens, that you say that the police department is failing. That’s not reasonable. I think, instead, what we generally expect is that the integrity systems, the police departments, if you will, will do a good job of helping to deter and catch the bad thing when it happens and keep it at a minimum, and keep driving the trend in a positive direction and be in front of other issues too. So we’re going to do that here.
And for the metaverse, I think that there are different types of integrity questions. One of the big issues that I think people need to think through is right now there’s a pretty meaningful gender skew, at least in virtual reality, where there’s a lot more men than women. And in some cases that leads to harassment. And I think one of the things that we’ve been able to do better in some of our experiences than some of the other games and things out there is give people easier tools to block people, just be able to have a sense of when there might be harassment going on, to keep it a safe space that can be inclusive for everyone, that everyone wants to be a part of.