Mark Zuckerberg is putting all of his money into the idea of the Metaverse. He is spending billions of dollars on developing futuristic technologies like neural interface wristbands and augmented reality smart glasses that will support this new virtual world. But some people think that the Metaverse is a distraction from the many pressing problems that Facebook and Instagram are dealing with right now, like users’ privacy, safety, and mental health. They also worry that these new technologies could cause or worsen existing social problems. So what are Meta’s future plans for the Metaverse?
Recode talked to Nick Clegg, president of global affairs for Meta, who recently wrote an 8,000-word essay on the Metaverse to learn more about its potential and the problems it faces.
Clegg, who used to be the UK’s deputy prime minister and is used to being criticized in politics, agreed with some of the criticisms of this developing virtual world. Such as that it is still mostly hypothetical, uses “data-intensive” technology, and could be used in bad ways.
Clegg says that’s exactly why we should have these philosophical discussions about the Metaverse now, while much of the technology is still in its early stages. Instead of waiting until it’s fully developed and could be used by billions of people like Facebook and Instagram are now.
On a stage, four people are sitting. “Welcome to CPAC Israel” is written on a big screen behind them.
Clegg said, “One of the reasons it’s a good idea to talk about the future now instead of being surprised by it when it comes. It gives us a chance to have some of those early conversations about the ethical, social, and maybe even regulatory debates.” “And it’s possible that didn’t happen the last time.”
The interview that comes next has been cut down and made clearer.
I think a lot of people don’t believe the Metaverse is real. People might make fun of the fact that avatars in Meta’s Metaverse still don’t have legs. This could be because they aren’t using a VR headset. How much of the Metaverse is real, and how much is made up now?
Well, people who play Fortnite or, like me, have kids who play it all the time are living in a kind of Metaverse. And don’t forget that you don’t have to wear a headset to experience the Metaverse.
We want to make the difference between 2D and 3D access to the Metaverse less clear. And if the Metaverse could only be accessed through headsets, we’d already be limiting the technology’s potential because it would only be available to people who could afford that hardware. We want to make it as accessible as possible.
So, I think it’s a much more flexible idea than your question suggests, but I also agree that in many ways, we’re talking about a technology that won’t be as exciting in all its forms for a long time. So there’s always a little bit of stress, right? I think it will be interesting to see how quickly that gap closes.
One reason it’s a good idea is to talk about Meta’s future plans for Metaverse now instead of being surprised. It gives us a chance to talk early on about the ethical, societal, and maybe even regulatory issues that should come up with any major change in communications technology. And it’s possible that it didn’t happen the last time.
If you look at how social media spread, you’ll see that we’re still debating what legal, regulatory, and social responses or limits people think should be in place. In a way, it’s like putting the cart before the horse since the technology was used long before society was ready to deal with it. I think that if we can have this conversation, we’ll be able to bring the two debates about technology and how society should respond closer together. That would be good for the next 10, 15, or 20 years.
I know that at Meta, people hold work meetings in the Metaverse, which many people have never heard of. I learned that you have your weekly sessions in Horizon Workrooms, which is like Meta’s “Zoom for the metaverse.” Can you say a bit about how that’s been going?
I really like how it makes me feel. The first thing I noticed, and I’m sure I’m doing it right now, is that when I talk to a flat screen with row after row of people in what look like passport photo boxes facing me, I have to strain a bit to be heard.
When I first started using Horizon Workrooms, the first thing I noticed was that my voice was much calmer. It felt like I was talking to the person on the other side of the table, who seemed to be just a few feet away or half a meter away. And that makes everything much more peaceful. And then there’s the fun and variety of what you can do with your avatar. You can dress it in crazy clothes and decorate the room however you want.
Then there’s the outside landscape, which you can change to your liking. So it’s fun, but strangely enough, it feels more like being in the real world daily.
It’s interesting how the avatars make you look like a cartoon version of yourself. I looked about 20 years younger and a few pounds lighter than I really am, and I think that was a choice I made unconsciously.
Of course, as you say, you’re legless. But the technology for avatars is improving so quickly that even now, compared to six months ago, I find that the upper-body avatars move much more naturally and like real people than they did before. It’s basic, of course, and we’ll probably think it’s almost funny how basic it is in 10 years.
Let’s get to content moderation. How do you get around in the Metaverse? Why should people believe that Meta will handle social issues in the Metaverse better this time than it did in social media 1.0? And with privacy, which I think is a big worry for many people.
You’ll be happy to know that neither Meta nor Mark Zuckerberg will be in charge of the Metaverse on their own. The Metaverse will be built by many different companies, and each company will build its own operating system, world, services, and experiences.
Different companies will focus on different parts of the Metaverse, just like the internet isn’t owned by one company. Okay, so you have two big operating systems, iOS and Android, that act as a kind of duopoly for operating systems. But no one company owns the internet, and the same won’t be true of the Metaverse. So I don’t think it has anything to do with what any one company does. I think that’s what companies do when they work together.
People should be able to move from one part of the Metaverse to another, so we want to ensure it’s not too split up. Who will make the technical and other standards for interoperability that are needed for this to happen? Who controls what people do or say in private metaverse spaces?
For instance, three or four friends might get together to talk, play chess, hang out, or tell jokes. Do you want these big companies to look into those private places that are kind of like your living room in the Metaverse? Well, in real life, you don’t want that.
You wouldn’t think that the police would have a microphone that records everything you do. But if you’re in a public place, you shouldn’t… In other words, I think there are a lot of different rules and standards that fit together in a complicated way. Some of them are formal, while others aren’t.
And we should talk early on about how to do that.
I’ll give you one more example where I think we could have been more creative than we were the first time. And that means making sure that users and creators have a real say in where the line should be drawn between what is and isn’t okay, especially in the Metaverse’s public spaces.
(Note from the editor: Some privacy experts are worried that Meta will collect more information about our physical bodies in the Metaverse.
Meta’s VR products currently collect information about users’ physical features, interactions like point-and-click and voice commands (but not audio conversations), and movement. The company says it anonymizes this information to improve the product. The company says it doesn’t use this information for targeted advertising right now, but it is rumored to be thinking about doing so in the future.
Meta also saves the last few minutes of what people say to each other in Horizon Worlds, its social VR environment. Meta says that data is stored on a user’s device in a rolling buffer before it is automatically deleted. (If a user reports another user for bad behavior, a copy of the recording is sent to the company’s safety experts for review.)
I can see why people would say that this is a more private place. I’ve also heard that the Metaverse needs more oversight because it’s more immersive, feels more real, and is, therefore, more dangerous. Some women said their avatars were harassed or groped by other people’s avatars in the Metaverse. Then, the Washington Post ran a story about how many children under 18 were in the Horizon Worlds environment.
How do you feel about that? Should we pay more attention to this space because it seems more real?
Well, first of all, I think I agree with what you said, which is that the way we will talk to each other in the Metaverse will be different from how we talk to each other on social media.
But to get to your main point, most communication in the Metaverse will be the same as it is in the real world. In other words, it doesn’t last long. When we say something, the words are there, and then they’re gone. They’re not turned into something that goes viral on the internet and stays there forever like social media posts are. If you want to get rid of it, you have to play a constant game of cat and mouse to get rid of it from every dark corner of the internet. It’s quite different.
And I think that raises some fascinating questions: Are you building a conceptual framework based on our experiences on social media, or are you building a conceptual framework of safety, integrity, and speech moderation based on real life? I think it’s more like the second one than the first one. By the way, I don’t think any of these analogies are perfect, but I think that one is the most helpful. People think this is just a conclusion drawn from social media.
Yes, I think you’re right about the “immediacy” of it all. If the idea of presence means that you’ll know right away if someone says something to you or just gestures in a way that you find offensive or threatening, then you’ll know right away.
You’re using your visual senses, your hearing senses. But along with this immediateness comes a lot of control. I mean, all you have to do is block the person. You can literally just get out of that space in an instant. We made this buffer so that no one’s avatar can get closer to you than this distance, which I think is four or five feet or as close as you want it to be.
Regarding your point about kids, I agree that we need to do more. In fact, we just last week announced a set of very important innovations that give parents much more control over what apps their kids can use, what they’re doing in real-time, and how much time they can spend on Metaverse. That is a very important first step. Again, we need to do research in this area. That’s why we’ve set aside around $50 million to invest in research with program partners so that these kinds of things are taken into account from the start.
Eye tracking and being able to track facial expressions are two things that Meta is said to be working on. Does [the Metaverse] mean that Meta will be keeping a closer eye on me? Also, will this make us less connected to each other in the real world? How do you deal with these worries?
Yeah. I mean, when it comes to the last point, the word “metaverse” is sometimes confusing and not very helpful. You are being taken to a different place. Using some of these technologies is, of course, a way to get away from real life. That can be a lot of fun and very helpful. But there is much more to the Metaverse than that. It’s about finding more and more ways for the benefits of the online world to be a part of our everyday lives. In other words, it’s about finding ways for the online world to add to our experiences instead of replacing them. I think that’s very important. It makes more. We don’t want to make a parallel world where you can lose yourself forever. I don’t think that’s likely to happen.
If anything, I think the line between “here and now” and “over there,” if I can put it that way, will become less clear than it is right now when we are constantly craning our necks to look at these small things we hold in our hands.
Look at any street in any American city, and you’ll see how many people aren’t looking up. People look at their phones. But just think: in 10 or 15 years, if we can wear these glasses, and you’re walking around an American city, and you’re looking up, but you’re actually getting directions, it’ll be a much more seamless experience. So, in many ways, it shouldn’t put up a new barrier between our everyday lives and the lives of others. It will be more like a line.
Given how much we’ve talked about data use and privacy over the last ten years, it’s hard to imagine those big companies like Meta, Microsoft, Apple, Google, and all the others will be able to do whatever they want with VR technologies.
This is, of course, a technology that uses a lot of data. There’s no point in denying it. But I hope we can find good middle ground.
One last question. We’ve talked a lot about what could go wrong in the Metaverse, but I want to give you a chance to talk about what you’re looking forward to in it. Is there one way you can use the Metaverse that really gets you excited?
I am pleased about education. Imagine a teacher in Ohio telling a class of 12-year-olds about ancient Rome and saying, “You know what? I’m not just going to write something on the whiteboard and show it to you. I’m not going to make you read a book just because I say so. I’m going to really take you there. So, put on these headphones, and we’ll go listen to Mark Antony argue in ancient Rome.” How interesting will that be?