In its mission to own the next generation of computing, i.e. whatever eventually peels us away from our phones, Facebook has planted a flag in some of the most potentially transformational technologies that exist. Unfortunately, the pathologically unimaginative company is content to sell the future short.
Virtual reality, augmented reality, and brain-computer interfaces are three of the most interesting areas in tech, and Facebook has placed its bets accordingly. While all three technologies could weave a near future in which we collectively feel less weighed down by the internet, the world’s biggest social network has other plans.
At its big virtual reality developer event this week, Facebook announced “Facebook Horizon,” the “culmination” of the company’s collective knowledge of “virtual spaces and communities.” The virtual world, launching in 2020, outlines Facebook’s vision for an even more immersive version of its social platform.
Facebook promises a “a bustling town square where people will meet and mingle”—optimistic language that hearkens back to a simpler time when Facebook’s mission to “connect the world” sounded benign enough, if hilariously self-important.
In a promo video, the company teased a cloying and nightmarishly mundane version of the near future. In its new virtual reality world, partially disembodied avatars float around a benign, colorful landscape, occasionally piloting propeller planes through sweeping virtual canyon vistas or painting pictures. Facebook’s virtual world bears little resemblance to the often unsavory realities of social media. (Needless to say, Facebook’s promo video didn’t show any shadowy, deep-pocketed figures feeding dollar bills into unsupervised ad-vending kiosks or any avatars in yellow and black Fred Perry polos kicking the shit out of each other.)
This week, Facebook also announced that it would acquire CTRL-Labs, an innovative company cooking up a motor neuron-powered brain-computer interface that allows users to interact with a computer using only neural signals. The company’s main device is an armband that monitors electrical signals transmitted from the brain to muscles, converting those signals to inputs.
Not everyone was happy about the acquisition. And that’s not even counting Congress.
Of the acquisition, Facebook's VP of AR and VR didn’t wax particularly poetic, explaining how the tech works and saying only that the company wants to build “more natural, intuitive ways to interact with devices and technology,” i.e. its own platform.
"Our vision is that AR/VR will be the next major computing platform after mobile in about 10 years,” Zuckerberg said in an internal letter about its aspirations. “It can be even more ubiquitous than mobile—especially once we reach AR—since you can always have it on.”
As usual, Facebook’s vision is jarringly cynical. The company’s deep cynicism tends to get lost—Facebook has long told a story of itself as a wide-eyed ingénue, a company so optimistic it could not have anticipated the horrors it unleashed as it cashed in on its mission to “connect the world.” A lot of people bought it.
The unfortunate thing is: This stuff is cool. Virtual worlds, for all their potential ills, are still exciting. Brain-computer interfaces are genuinely thrilling and futuristic. But in Facebook’s grip, the color drains out. Just ask any of the founders of WhatsApp, Instagram, or Oculus—they all headed for the exits in recent years.
BUYING THE FUTURE
There might be more modest goals in tech, but Facebook has always wanted to own the future. The company is relentless in its quest to completely dominate whatever digital medium people pay attention to. The company’s latest acquisition and its virtual reality plans signal one thing: Facebook failed to predict what was around the corner once and it learned a lesson. The company still resents Google and Apple for dominating the smartphone game and wants a bigger piece of the pie next time.
First, it was desktop, and the company succeeded in making “checking Facebook” shorthand for procrastinating on your work computer. But the company was slow to ship mobile apps that weren’t buggy and awful. “We weren’t happy with the quality of our mobile experiences, rewinding 18 months, so we just had a lot of foundational work to do,” Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said in 2013, recalling that time. “Coming into this year, we could kind of tell we were turning the corner on that.”
By 2013, the company successfully bet its future on mobile—specifically mobile ad revenue, which it started to rake in by the pile. In 2011, Facebook made 0 dollars from mobile ads. Just two years later, it owned 16 percent of the mobile ad market. By 2017, its share of the mobile ad market was a whopping $14.4 billion.
The company wouldn’t make the same mistake again.
Even as regulators threaten to unwind the company’s biggest acquisitions, Facebook is smug enough to barrel forward, spending between $500 million and $1 billion for CTRL-Labs, its latest toy. For founders, the kind of money Facebook can shower on a fledgling innovation is understandably impossible to resist.
Unfortunately, the influx of resources the company pumps into its new acquisitions can only delay the inevitable. At Facebook, all products move toward their inexorable fate as the company’s latest cash cow, fattened up for slaughter.
We know how it will go down: there’s a formula that dictates how Facebook chews through products. First, make something people like to use. Sink your claws deeply into users by optimizing for engagement, keeping them clicking little red bubbles and sending up showers of hearts. Then the ads come marching in.
Look at Instagram—a formerly universally loved photo sharing app now clotted so thoroughly with ads that it’s barely usable. For the first few years following its acquisition, Instagram remained mostly intact. Friends shared pictures. You looked at them. You went back when there were new ones.
Now, opening Instagram is like bouncing around in yet another social media slot machine, with endless visual signals to keep you idly clicking around and an algorithmic timeline that stirs posts you care about into a slop of advertising that’s increasingly annoying but always just barely tolerable.
In a 2014 earnings call, Zuckerberg spoke wistfully of his platform in its earliest days. “We gave all of those things away for free,” he said. “Only after we had a good, organic kind of interaction… did we really layer ads on top of that.”
In that same call, Zuckerberg noted how he prefers to let new products simmer for a year or two before bringing them up to a boil and stirring the ads in. Facebook game plan: allowing products to reach a billion users before “very aggressively” monetizing them.
“We think these new ecosystems are going to ramp up over time… Rather than have this be an impact that you’ll notice in a short term period of time,” Zuckerberg said.
Boiling the frog is killer business. And unfortunately, the most interesting business Facebook can imagine is advertising in three dimensions instead of two.