When Mark Zuckerberg announced last year that Facebook was changing its name to Meta and that, within five years, the company would transition from being primarily a social media company to a “metaverse” one, many people were skeptical, confused, or downright scared.
The metaverse — a concept pulled from science fiction — is a simulated virtual world where people can socialize, work, and play via digital avatars of themselves rather than with their actual physical bodies. While some elements of the metaverse, like virtual reality headsets, are already in use, most of the foundational technology underpinning the would-be metaverse doesn’t fully exist today, and by Zuckerberg’s estimates some of it could take up to 15 years to build.
Zuckerberg is going all-in on the idea, spending billions of dollars to develop futuristic technologies like neural interface wristbands and augmented reality smart glasses that will underpin this new virtual world. But some see the metaverse as a distraction from the many immediate issues that Facebook and Instagram are dealing with around users’ privacy, safety, and mental well-being — and are worried that these new technologies could cause more or worsen existing social problems.
To better understand the promise of the metaverse and the challenges confronting it, Recode spoke with Nick Clegg, president of global affairs for Meta, who recently wrote an 8,000-word essay on the topic.
Clegg, a former deputy prime minister of the United Kingdom who is accustomed to political pushback, accepted some of the criticisms of this developing virtual world: that it’s still largely hypothetical, it involves “data intensive” technology, and it could be misused.
That’s precisely why, Clegg argues, we should be having these philosophical debates about the metaverse today while much of the technology is still in its relative infancy rather than after it’s fully developed and potentially used by billions the way Facebook and Instagram are today.
“One of the reasons why it is a good idea to talk about the future now rather than, in a sense, be surprised by it when it arrives is that it does allow us to have some of those early discussions about the ethical, societal, possibly even regulatory debates,” said Clegg. “And that arguably didn’t happen the last time around.”
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How do you describe the metaverse to everyday people?
It’s all about deepening presence — in other words, using technology so that even if we’re not physically together, we feel as human beings that we are nonetheless in each other’s presence.
But it’s worth remembering the metaverse is not a single product in the way that Meta’s apps are [like] Facebook and Instagram. It’s not an operating system like Microsoft Windows. It’s not hardware like an iPhone. It’s like today’s internet. The metaverse will be a constellation of technologies, platforms, and products. But at its heart lies this idea that over time, technology will almost melt away. We’ll be less aware of technology and more aware of each other’s presence.
It sounds like some sort of science fiction: this idea that we could, as holograms, be sitting in the same room together, rather than talking to each other … through a flat screen [of the computer].
[But] we believe that there’s no law of nature that says we’re just going to be so stuck with phones in our hands and that’s the end of technological evolution. We believe that we could move toward technology which you could put on the bridge of your nose that will get lighter and lighter as the technology advances.
Eventually, it’ll be like putting spectacles on.
I think a lot of people are skeptical about how real the metaverse is. Maybe it’s because they’re not using a VR headset, or people poke fun at the fact that avatars in Meta’s metaverse still don’t have legs. How much of the metaverse is actually real right now and how much is imagined?
Well, anyone who plays Fortnite or, as I do, has children who obsessively play Fortnite — they’re inhabiting a kind of metaverse. And remember, the metaverse is not something that you only experience through wearing headsets.
We want to increasingly blur the distinction between 2D and 3D access to the metaverse. And if the metaverse was only accessible via headsets, of course, we’d already be constraining the potential for the technology because it would only be available to those people who can afford that hardware, whereas we want to try and make it as accessible as possible.
And so I think it’s a much more elastic concept than your question suggests, but I equally accept that in many ways we’re talking about a technology which won’t come to fruition and won’t be as exciting in all its aspects for many years yet. So there’s always a slight tension, isn’t there? I think the interesting thing will be, how rapidly will that gap close?
One of the reasons why it is a good idea to talk about the future now rather than, in a sense, be surprised by it when it arrives is that it does allow us to have some of those early discussions about the ethical, societal, possibly even regulatory debates that should accompany any new major overhaul in communications technology. And that arguably didn’t happen the last time around.
If you look at the way in which social media erupted and then we’re still actually sort of debating the legal and regulatory and societal responses or guardrails that people believe should be put in place. In a sense, it’s the wrong way around — the cart before the horse — because the technology was used well before the societal response matured. I think if we can have this discussion, we can sync those two debates, the technology and the societal responses, more in parallel with each other. And I think that would be a healthy thing over the next 10, 15, 20 years.
I know that at Meta, people are doing work meetings in the metaverse, and that that is a new concept to a lot of people. I saw that you have your weekly meetings in the Horizon Workrooms environment, which is like Meta’s “Zoom for the metaverse.” Can you talk a little bit about what that’s been like?
I find it a really refreshing experience. The first thing I noticed was — I’m sure I’m doing it right now — which is that when I speak to a flat screen with a row upon row of people in sort of passport photograph boxes facing you, I find that I somewhat strain my voice to make myself heard.
The first thing I noticed when I started using Horizon Workrooms is that my voice is completely relaxed. It was as if I was talking to the person who was — as it appears — just a couple of feet away from me or half a meter away on the other side of the table. And that makes for a much more relaxing experience. And then there’s the fun and the versatility of what you can do with your avatar and wear crazy clothes and decorate the room in any way you want.
And then you’ve got the landscape outside, which you can chop and change to your liking. So it’s both fun, but oddly enough, feels more like normal, everyday presence in the physical world.
The avatars — it’s interesting because you are a bit of a sort of cartoon depiction of yourself. I looked suspiciously about 20 years younger and several pounds lighter than I am in reality, and that’s a sort of subconscious choice on my part.
Of course, as you say, you’re legless. But the avatar technology is advancing so rapidly that even now, compared to six months ago, I find that the movements of the upper-body avatars are much more lifelike and natural than they were before. … Of course, it’s rudimentary, and we’ll look back on it in 10 years time and think it’s almost comically rudimentary.
Do you play any games in the metaverse?
I don’t. I don’t play too many games. But of course, many other people do. The early use case has been gaming. But what is interesting — we see it on our own surfaces (Editor’s note: Meta owns a line of virtual reality headsets called Quest on which people can play games, socialize, and work in virtual reality) — is how much people are almost effortlessly moving from gaming to social use cases that are people just hanging out together. That’s in a sense the reason why Meta is so committed to this future.
What is the DNA of Meta in all its apps and products? It’s to try and find new ways by which people can connect with family and friends and people they want to hang out with. The social use case of the metaverse is obviously the one in which we think we’ve got a particular insight and expertise.
Let’s get to content moderation. What are the rules of the metaverse? Why should people trust Meta to do a better job this time handling social issues in the metaverse than it did with social media 1.0? And with privacy as well, which I think is a big concern for people.
You’ll be relieved to hear that neither Meta nor Mark Zuckerberg are going to run the metaverse single-handedly. The metaverse is going to be built by many different companies, and different companies will build different operating systems, different worlds, different services, different experiences.
Different companies will specialize in different parts of the metaverse, much like the internet is not owned by — I mean, okay, you’ve got two big operating systems that act as a sort of operating system duopoly in iOS and Android. But the internet is not owned by any single company, and the same will be true with the metaverse. So I don’t actually think it’s about what any single company does. It’s what, I think, companies do together. …
We want to make sure that it’s not a balkanized and fragmented experience so people can move one part of the metaverse to the other. Who’s going to come up with the … technical and other interoperability standards that are required to allow that to happen? Who is responsible for what people do or say in private spaces in the metaverse?
[As an example], three or four friends just sort of get together to chat or play chess, or hang out together, or tell jokes. Do you want these big companies peering into those private spaces that are the sort of metaverse equivalent of your living room? Well, you don’t want that in real life.
You don’t expect the police to have a kind of microphone recording everything you do. But if you’re in a public space, then of course … In other words, I think this is quite a complex jigsaw of different norms and standards. Some of them are formal, some of them are not formal.
And how we do that is something that we should be having early discussions about.
I’ll give you one other example where I believe we could be more innovative than we were, as you put it, the first time around. And that is ensuring that users and creators have a meaningful voice in where the line should be drawn about what is and what is not acceptable, particularly in the public spaces, in the metaverse.
(Editor’s note: Some privacy experts have raised concerns about Meta collecting more data about our physical bodies in the metaverse.
Meta currently collects data via its VR products about users’ physical features, interactions such as point and click and voice commands (but not audio conversations), and movement — which the company says it deidentifies — to improve the product. The company says it does not currently use this data for targeted advertising, but it is reportedly considering some forms of targeted advertisements in the metaverse in the future.
Meta also records the last few minutes of people’s audio interactions in its social VR environment, Horizon Worlds. The company says that data is stored on a rolling buffer basis on a user’s device before it automatically deletes the data — unless a user reports another user for misconduct, in which case a copy of the recording is sent to the company’s safety specialists for review.)
I hear the argument that this is a more private space. I’ve also heard the argument that the metaverse needs more supervision because it’s more immersive, it feels more lifelike, and therefore it’s more impactful. … [For example], some women were reporting getting virtually harassed or groped in the metaverse by other people’s avatars. And then there was a report in the Washington Post about the prevalence of underage children in the Horizon Worlds environment.
So what do you think about that? Should we be watching this space more because it feels more lifelike?
Well, I first agree with, I think, the assertion you made, which is that [there are] differences between the way we will communicate in the metaverse and the way that we communicate in social media.
But to your fundamental point, most communication in the metaverse will be like the communication we have in real life. In other words, it’s ephemeral. We say something and the words — they’re literally there and they disappear. They’re not transcribed like social media posts are into something which then goes viral on the internet [and] stays around forever. If you’re trying to remove it, you’re constantly playing cat and mouse, trying to remove it from every dark recess of the internet. It’s quite different.
And I think that that poses really interesting questions: Are you building a conceptual framework which is derived from our experience on social media, or are you building a conceptual framework of safety, integrity, and speech moderation which is derived from real life? And I think it’s much more like the latter than the former. I don’t think, by the way, any of these analogies are perfect, but I think that is a more instructive analogy. People assume that this is just an extrapolation from social media. It isn’t. You’re literally starting all over again. You’re building a new computing platform.
To your point about the kind of immediacy of it all, yes, I think that is right, that if the idea of presence means that you will feel in that instant if someone says something or just gesticulates to you in a way that you find offensive or threatening, of course you feel that with an immediacy.
You’re using your visual senses, your audio senses. But alongside that immediacy, of course, comes great control. I mean, you can literally just block the person. You can, in an instant, literally just remove yourself from that space. We’ve introduced this buffer so that no one’s avatar [can] get closer to you — I think it’s four or five feet or as you choose to allow them to.
Your point, by the way, about kids, I totally accept that we need to [do more] … and in fact, we just last week announced a suite of very important innovations which give parents far greater control into literally just blocking the apps that kids can use … seeing what they’re doing in real time, [and] limiting the amount of time that they’re on metaverse. That is a very significant start. … And again, that’s an area where we need to do research, which is why we’ve set aside around $50 million to invest in research with program partners precisely to make sure that those kinds of considerations are integrated right from the beginning.
It’s been reported that Meta is [working on] eye tracking [and the ability to] track facial expressions. Does [the metaverse] mean that Meta is going to be watching me more? And then also, will this mean we’re more disconnected from each other in real life? How do you counter those concerns?
Yeah. I mean, on the latter point, the word “metaverse” is in some ways rather unhelpful and a little misleading. You’re being transported to another place. Of course, there is escapism inherent in using some of these technologies. That can be very joyful and enriching. But the metaverse is much more than that. It’s about finding ever more inevitable ways for the benefits of the online world to be felt in our daily lives —in other words, enriching our experiences but not replacing them. I really do think that’s crucial. It’s additive. The aspiration, certainly on our part, is not to create some parallel world in which you lose yourself forever — I don’t think that’s likely.
If anything, my guess is that the boundary between the here and now and the “over there,” if I can put it like that, will become less stark than the extent to which we are, at the moment, constantly craning our necks, looking down at these little things we have in the palm of our hands.
Just look at any street in any American city: You would just see the number of people who are not looking up. They’re looking at phones. But just imagine in 10 or 15 years, if we’re able to don these spectacles and you’re walking around an American city and you’re looking up, but you’re actually getting [directions], it’ll become a much more blended experience. And therefore, in many respects, it shouldn’t create a new wall between our everyday existing real life and others. It’ll be more of a continuum.
On the issue of data use and privacy, it is inconceivable, given the debates we’ve had over the last 10 years, that companies like Meta, Microsoft, Apple, or Google and all these big players will somehow be able to just do what they like in VR technologies.
This is, of course, a data-intensive technology. No use pretending it isn’t. But I hope we can strike the right balance.
One last question. We talked a lot about potential problems in the metaverse, but I also want to give you space to talk about what you’re excited about in it. Is there one use case about the metaverse that you are the most excited about?
I’m particularly excited about education. Imagine a teacher in Ohio teaching a class of 12-year-olds about ancient Rome and saying, “You know what? I’m not just going to show you something on the whiteboard. I’m not just going to force you to read a book. I’m actually going to take you there. So put these headsets on and we’ll go together and listen to, you know, Mark Antony debate in ancient Rome.” I mean, how exciting will that be?