In my line of work I’m inundated with media releases filled with ethereal, idealistic wording that claim to be explaining some wildly “innovative” new product, that is, in reality nothing more than a lot of words that say nothing of consequence.
If that sounds harsh, then ask any journalist (especially those of the tech variety) or just read Mark Zuckerberg’s Founder’s Letter, 2021.
It opens with a grandiose statement proclaiming that “We are at the beginning of the next chapter for the internet, and it’s the next chapter for our company too.”
To try to wrap my head around Facebook’s rebrand to Meta and to get a better understanding of what the metaverse is, I spoke to Derya Matras, vice-president for the Middle East, Africa and Turkey at Meta.
BP: Walk us through this shift that's happened at the company. What does this mean for Facebook as a company and what does it mean for the public at large who use your services and platforms?
DM: Absolutely. Before I jump into the name change, I’d like to mention a little bit about the metaverse and what we are seeing and why we’re doing this.
Metaverse is, think about it as the next name for the internet. Ten years from now instead of saying internet, we’re going to say Metaverse. It’s the internet that you’re inside of, instead of just looking at it. This is not something new, it’s been happening for a while now, over the past years we’ve seen social communication technology is getting more and more immersive. We’ve seen the change from moving from fixed lines to desktops and then to mobile, or moving from communicating with text to communicating with pictures and then moving to videos and more immersive formats of videos such as 360-degree videos and filters.
We want more immersive experiences when we have online interactions with one another. Imagine metaverse being a set of digital 3D spaces and experiences that are so interconnected that you can easily move between them, wider and deeper than virtual reality. It’s a form of internet that’s going to involve commerce and services, payments, work, life. education all together in a very interconnected way.
This has been something that we’ve been working on for months now, nearly seven months, and it signals the direction that our company is headed.
We are at the start of a major shift towards the metaverse and as the future of social technology evolves, we are also changing from being known primarily as a social media company to being known as a metaverse company.
Our company brand is a way of being transparent with people about how we plan to embrace this future. There has been a level of confusion also in terms of having our company name — the corporate brand — the same name as one of our apps. Many people don’t know that Facebook is also building WhatsApp, Messenger workplace portal, Oculus, Instagram. So this brings a lot of clarity around where we are headed and how we are going to embrace the future. It's also being very transparent with our users and our investors about how we plan to invest in this future next evolution of social technology.
the change is already underfoot but how successful it will be depends on whether or not companies are willing to work together
BP: That word immersive is a word that I have found to pop up many, many times lately from so many different companies. What does it actually mean when so many different companies use the word immersive to describe things like improved audio quality or animojis? What does immersive mean to Meta?
DM: Nothing beats being physically together with our friends, our colleagues or our loved ones, but Covid-19 showed us that it’s not always possible. And when we are not physically together with our loved ones, we want that experience as close as it is to physical life. That's where technology is evolving.
I studied at university away from home and talking to my parents was an expensive call once a week and we would SMS to each other. That was my connection with my parents, but now we have Wi-Fi access, and I can call them on video calls, and I can see them every day. My children connect to the same world in Minecraft to play hide and seek together with their cousins every weekend. They live in a different country and it’s an amazing way to connect. So, we already see this trend that when we cannot be physically together, we want our online experiences as close to as it is in the physical world as well. That's the immersive concept.
Imagine studying how ancient Rome was from history books, vs being teleported to it through VR seeing how people live. That’s where the technology is moving to.
As you also mentioned, as Facebook we won’t be building this alone in the same way that Facebook didn't invent the internet, it’s only a stakeholder in the internet era. It’s also going to be the same for the metaverse. It’s a matter of ecosystem. There needs to be creators, private companies, SMBs (small and medium businesses) and policymakers. Every piece needs to be in place to bring the metaverse to life. The technology’s maybe 10 years ahead of us but we want to start having this conversation to bring everyone into this conversation and do this responsibly.
BP: Let’s talk about collaboration. As you’ve said, it’s not Facebook or Meta that’s in this alone.
Brad Smith, president of Microsoft, said that what he’s seen from companies is that in terms of sharing information and working together collaboratively, it’s still very siloed. I understand that companies are very secretive or reluctant to share information but with something like the metaverse, surely this needs to change?
How do you see that collaboration working and do you think that companies are going to want to collaborate together on this?
DM: An excellent question. Thank you so much for asking this.
We believe it needs to be as such. This can evolve into, let’s say, an exclusive meta vs, let’s say, an Apple metaverse. There could be a Facebook metaverse and a Microsoft metaverse and there’s no interoperability in between them, which is what we’re advocating for — interoperability.
The whole industry should come together to work on this not only big tech but also academia, civil society, policymakers, tech companies, developers and creators; everybody should come together and collaborate. Facebook isn’t going to build on or run the metaverse on its own; we should be collaborating at every stage. That’s the same reason we’re starting the conversation even before we build the technology. In the past, the speed of certain technology has emerged so fast that it left the policymakers and regulators playing catch up. Users and tech companies move very fast but regulators can’t and that’s why we bump into issues around privacy, integrity, safety, security. We don’t want to let that happen again. So we want to start having this conversation with the entire industry to agree on the core principles around building in privacy, safety, security from the start.
That’s why this year, we launched a $50m investment programme in external research. We’re collaborating with industry partners, civil rights groups, government, non-profit and academic institutions to figure out what we should be careful about while we are building these technologies.
When you have billions of people using a platform, the good and the bad in life has its reflection, and as big tech our responsibility is to maximise the good and minimise the bad. There will be bad actors everywhere and with these safety features in our product, it’s like we will be playing an arms race with them. We have to think this way ahead of time, and weave these features into the product while we are building it so that we can do it as responsibly as possible.
Ten years from now instead of saying internet, we’re going to say Metaverse
BP: I’m glad you brought that up, because I’d love to touch on this for a second. Globally there’s been this movement where people are questioning the power of big tech and the role that it plays in our lives. What is the thinking at a company like Facebook or Meta as you start having the conversation around creating something that is this big and this new? Essentially, the metaverse is the Wild West in that there are no rules and it’s very much a free for all.
What responsibility do companies have in terms of protecting people and maybe even making sure that some of the bad behaviours we’re seeing online right now do not carry through to the metaverse?
DM: Another excellent question. Thank you so much for asking this.
You’re right. There’s been a lot of scrutiny lately around the role of big tech and how much responsibility we have and what we're doing. We always welcome good criticism because it makes us do better.
There have been some claims around Facebook putting profits over safety, etc. The thing is, in my six years at the company, I’ve been in hundreds of critical decision meetings and the conversation is never about optimising for profits or for people's safety, it’s always around societal issues.
Mark [Zuckerberg] has been calling for regulation for more than three years now, saying that private company executives shouldn’t be deciding on these societal issues. And by societal issues I mean, for example, the more hard encryption we put into the product, the less possible it is to collaborate with law enforcement because the content is encrypted. So privacy comes at the cost of safety.
Hate speech. We have 0.05% hate speech on our platform. So it’s like five content pieces out of every 10,000. It is the best standard in the industry compared to big tech but it’s not enough, we have to get it down even more. At the same time as we try to move from 0.05% to maybe 0.01%, then people also start removing the good content because there will be false positives. It comes at the cost of free speech and whether, for example, you should be able to say that the earth is flat. Should you be able to write that on your Facebook feed? It’s false. Because it’s not harmful, because it’s not political speech, we let you but there are different ways to limit hate speech but at the same time we want to optimise for people speaking freely on the platform, so it comes at the cost of another societal issue.
That’s the reason Mark, despite doing all the investments that I’ll talk about, was calling for regulators and policymakers to work with us to help us make these decisions. This is exactly what I mentioned earlier about regulators and policymakers playing catch-up when technology goes too fast. That’s been the challenge lately and that’s why we've been calling for regulation.
In the absence of that regulation what we have done is invest in people and in technology. We’ve invested $13bn in safety, integrity and privacy issues since 2016. This year we are investing $5bn dollars. There are 70,000 employees at Facebook and 40,000 of them work in this space. We’re a business but more than half of our employees are working on areas of safety, privacy and integrity. At some point it’s not about throwing more headcount or more money at the problem, we need collaboration with industry stakeholders and policymakers to move forward.
Coming back to your question about how we are going to do this for the metaverse, that’s the exact same reason we are starting the conversation in the industry. We want to avoid this happening. It’s going to take at least five to seven years to build the technology, so we want to have these conversations so that we can design it into the product itself.
BP: Africa is at a disadvantage in terms of technological prowess and access to technology. With something as big as the metaverse, why should Africa care? What difference do you think it’s potentially going to make? Are we going to be sort of seeing an introduction to the metaverse at the same time as a country like the US or is it an opportunity for Africa to find a way of integrating with this, the metaverse, in a way that actually works for us, and not just copying and imitating what we see overseas?
DM: I do believe that it represents a great opportunity for the future. Forty percent of the world’s population is going to sit in Sub-Saharan Africa in three years. The youth of the world are coming from Africa.
An exciting trend that we’ve been seeing over the last decade is leapfrogging. You know the people of Africa not having fixed-line phones and jumping directly to mobile phones, for example. We see the same trend now with fintech and the emergence of cryptocurrencies and fintech companies. There is a young and growing developer ecosystem in Africa and it represents a big opportunity for the youth.
To give a personal example, when I graduated from university in 1999, the disadvantage that I had compared to somebody in Silicon Valley was huge. The internet was just emerging and what we could find was in libraries and encyclopedias but today it doesn’t really matter where you are, as long as you have internet connectivity and devices. Technological developments bring an equal chance to everyone to use their talents. So, from that perspective, I do believe that it represents huge opportunities for Africa, because that's where the youth is going to be and are already.
The challenge is going to be internet affordability. It’s a big challenge at the moment across the continent, and something that we are very much aware of, and that’s the reason we’ve been working in this area. We believe that connecting people is going to help communities improve lives and economies so we’ve been investing in the 2Africa cable, which is the largest subsea cable in the world, to connect the entire continent. We believe that it’s going to be the perfect example of an innovative partnership model where everyone benefits through developing scale infrastructure and sharing technology that is going to lead the industry in routes, capacity and flexibility. We’ve had significant investments by Meta especially around places like SA, Uganda, Nigeria and Democratic Republic of Congo.
The same thing about devices when the metaverse is here. We’re putting accessibility, both from a creator ecosystem perspective but also from a device perspective, as important design principles. So we are subsidising the pricing and waiving the fees for the creators because we want this to be as inclusive and as accessible as possible. Currently there are challenges but we are working on making sure that nobody’s left behind.
While this conversation was held via Zoom, it’s not hard to imagine that one day in the not too distant future, conversations like this will instead be held in a more immersive, interactive metaverse, whether it be one controlled by Meta, Microsoft or a new upstart that doesn’t exist today.
One thing is for certain, the way we’ll be engaging with technology, and each other, will change and the change is already underfoot but how successful it will be depends on whether or not companies are willing to work together and whether regulators are able to catch up to the ever faster moving advancements in tech.