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do you actually need to care about the metaverse?

Tech Revolution
Issue #1024 • View online
Hello there,
First of all this week, the idea of Mario Kart with NFTs has caused my head to spin like it’s been hit by a red shell. What an awful idea.
Also this week, I have been…
If you run an early-stage startup, you might be interested in this video interview I did with the fine folk at How To Web, with some thoughts about how startups should communicate with the world when they’re just getting off the ground.
Right, let’s get on with things, shall we? Yes, we shall…
— Martin

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🤔 Big questions
From this week’s news…
🤷‍♂️ Should we care about the 'metaverse'?
I’m not going to chew over Facebook’s rebrand as Meta too much here (check out last Friday’s Geekout newsletter for more on that), but one thing is clear: it’s successfully shifted the media conversation away from Facebook’s past wrongdoings and onto its glossy future in the metaverse.
The metaverse is fun to talk about as it involves speculation about a sci-fi future, rather than grubby and often difficult-to-explain misdeeds that don’t seem to translate into widespread public outrage.
There’s been plenty of cynicism about Mark Zuckerberg’s vision of the metaverse, varying from ‘it’s just more VR’ to ‘he’s just catching up with Roblox’, to ‘it’s just vaporware to distract from the company’s problems’.
All of these things are to some extent true, but it’s also true that Meta is very serious about taking the company in this direction. Just this week we heard about a “skin-like” material the company has developed that could bring the sensation of touch to the metaverse, further immersing you in a virtual world. The company has also acquired the maker of a hit VR fitness app.
And with 10,000 metaverse jobs planned in the EU alone, and around $10bn of investment in metaverse R&D planned in the coming year, this is a serious effort to move the company beyond traditional social media.
But should you actually care about a load of interlinked virtual world experiences? If it’s all years away, does it make any difference to your life in the here and now? Probably not. In the short term, the metaverse is a distraction. It’s a way of saying ‘yes, the world is a bit of a mess (partly due to Meta’s past actions) but there’s a bright future to look forward to. Shiny shiny!’
But the metaverse could also be the next big shift in our relationship with the internet, just in a different way to how Mark Zuckerberg describes it. In a much-shared Twitter thread, Shaan Puri wrote that we should think of the metaverse not as a product or a place, but rather “the moment in time where our digital life is worth more to us than our physical life”. In that respect, we’re already moving towards the metaverse, and we probably won’t notice the exact moment when we start spending most of our time in it.
In the meantime, expect countless half-baked startup ideas to promise ‘x for the metaverse’ over the next few months as they leap on the latest buzzword (sorry, angel investors out there!).
On the other end of the scale, Microsoft is already trying to tell us that its Flight Simulator, Minecraft, and Halo games are metaverses, which is a stretch. Meanwhile it’s bringing Teams to the metaverse (supposedly) with 3D avatars and ‘immersive’ meetings. Are they really ‘in the metaverse’, or just some avatars?
I much prefer Shaan Puri’s time-based definition of the metaverse, rather than it being a place or a series of places. If individual apps can be metaverses at the behest of their creators’ marketing departments, then the entire concept will have lost all meaning six months from now.
A time-based idea of the metaverse also makes it seem much more inevitable than thinking of it as a place that everyone will jack into everyday within a decade.
😶 Is the tide turning on facial recognition?
I wrote a couple of weeks ago about how instinctively rejecting all facial recognition was a bad move. The tech can be useful if it’s implemented carefully and responsibly.
But a couple of news stories this week show that perhaps the ‘bad’ facial recognition, er, faces a real backlash now. Meta has made the surprise move of shutting down its facial recognition system, announcing yesterday that it would delete the face data of more than 1 billion users.
It’s easy to see this as a simple PR win for Meta at a time when it wants to avoid any more bad press, but it wasn’t facing any urgent questions about face recognition in particular. The company’s decision to do this now seems to be based on an understanding that it was more trouble than it was worth from a security and privacy viewpoint.
Meanwhile, Clearview AI, a controversial company built entirely on facial recognition, has been ordered to stop collecting images of Australians and delete all its existing data relating to Australians.
The company says it will appeal, insisting it has done nothing wrong. But as the country’s information and privacy commissioner noted, “The indiscriminate scraping of people’s facial images, only a fraction of whom would ever be connected with law enforcement investigations, may adversely impact the personal freedoms of all Australians who perceive themselves to be under surveillance.”
Hopefully these stories will drive others to think about how and when facial recognition is appropriate and proportionate to the task at hand. And as the saying goes, just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you always should.
🛍 Is 'social QVC' really the future of retail?
Pinterest is the latest company to get into live shopping events. These are already big business in China, so Facebook, TikTok and others are trying to make a go of them in the West.
The best way to describe the phenomenon is like QVC on your phone. Someone (a creator, or a celebrity perhaps) talks through shoppable items in a live video feed, describing and demonstrating them, and you can buy them right there and then (quick before stock runs out!).
But just because suddenly all the big platforms want it to be ‘a thing’ in the West, doesn’t mean it will be. We’ll have a better sense of how audiences take to live social shopping after the current holiday season. Facebook and Instagram are making a particularly big push at the moment; how will they fare?
Just as it turned out that the Stories format doesn’t work everywhere (RIP Twitter fleets and LinkedIn stories), we’ll probably find out that QVC can’t be reimagined on every social platform either. In the meantime, maybe give the idea a try and grab a bargain.
More news you shouldn’t miss…
  • Microsoft has announced an intriguing new productivity app called Loop, which is either a Notion rip-off or the rebirth of Google Wave, depending on who you ask. [TechCrunch]
  • Yahoo has pulled out of China, citing ‘challenging’ business conditions. LinkedIn made a similar move lately. [BBC News]
  • The EU’s plan to rely less on American tech giants for cloud provision is said to be falling apart due to infighting and bloated bureaucracy. People who have dealt with the European Commission will probably sagely nod their head in familiarity, reading this. [Politico]
  • Is China’s punishing ‘996’ work culture going to be another victim of reforms in the country? TikTok parent ByteDance has ended the controversial practice, which sees staff working 9am-9pm, six-days per week. [Bloomberg $$$]
  • A.I. can now learn to evolve like biological lifeforms. [TNW]
  • Tesla has started offering its acclaimed Supercharger network to drivers of other EVs. It’s starting with just 10 sites in the Netherlands as a test, but I hear fellow Polestar 2 drivers there are happy with the results. [The Guardian]
  • Netflix has expanded its gaming service to 190 countries, although there’s not currently a lot of choice, and the games skew casual. [IGN]
  • Zoom is testing showing ads to free users at the end of calls. [The Verge]
🛸 Almost sci-fi
Is Carbon Capture Here?
📰 Big reads
Cars Are Going Electric. What Happens to the Used Batteries? 
The Fall and Rise of Techno-Globalism
More big reads:
🐣 Tweet of the week
This thread is interesting analysis of what’s caused the global supply chain crisis. Tap through to read it all.
Ryan Petersen
What caused all the supply chain bottlenecks? Modern finance with its obsession with "Return on Equity."
You can read another perspective on what’s happening with supply chains and shipping (and why it might not get much better for a looong time) here.
That's all for now...
I’ll be back next week with more. See you in your inbox then!
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