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No end to Meta’s woes as it builds the metaverse

Published Mar 2, 2022

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By James Browning

Meta Platforms has had a rough year. In the midst of mounting legislative barriers, falling market share and an ailing public image, Meta faced a record stock price drop in early February following the release of their annual report. A slow downward trend has continued through this past month that has only contained bad news for the parent company of Facebook, Instagram and Reality Labs.

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On February 3 last month, shares of Meta Platforms Inc. fell 26%, marking the largest single-day decline in market value for any U.S.-based company according to Dow Jones Market Data.

This followed in the wake of an annual report from Meta showing disappointing quarterly results as well as a loss of users for the first time in its history.

The report also contained remarks about the ongoing EU data legislation situation where Meta faces uncertainty about the future of European data regulation. “If a new transatlantic data transfer framework is not adopted… we will likely be unable to offer a number of our most significant products and services, including Facebook and Instagram, in Europe.”

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Two European ministers responded optimistically at a press conference in Paris on February 7.

"After being hacked, I've lived without Facebook and Twitter for four years, and life has been fantastic," said German Economy Minister Robert Habeck. French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire confirmed that, “life is very good without Facebook and that we would live very well without Facebook."

Meta responded on February 8 to some press coverage claiming the company as threatening to leave Europe. “We have absolutely no desire to withdraw from Europe; of course we don’t. But the simple reality is that Meta, like many other businesses, organisations and services, relies on data transfers between the EU and the US in order to operate our global services.”

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The same report also disclosed plans to spend $10 billion this year on the Metaverse. While it’s clear that Meta is all-in long term on its project to expand corporate capture of our time and attention, its marketing has so far come up short.

Public reception has been lukewarm at best among regular people, who unsurprisingly haven’t had much to take away from the vague and uninspiring marketing videos.

The Metaverse hasn’t been the only thing contributing to Meta’s ailing public image going into early 2021. Last October, a whistle-blower came forward with accusations that Meta is aware of harm that Instagram causes to its younger users and that Meta ignores these internal findings in favour of profit.

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The documents released by this whistle-blower also show that Facebook has been struggling to attract younger users for years.

This however should be unsurprising considering how Tiktok has been able to steadily grow its hold on youth attention since 2016. This stern competition is not alone in making things harder for Meta.

Changes from Apple in April last year under the banner App Tracking Transparency have empowered users to opt out of the majority of personal data tracking with a single tap. This puts a huge dent in Meta’s data-driven business model throughout the large market share of Apple products.

On top of this increasingly difficult business environment and lackluster annual report leading to the drastic stock price drop, the rest of February has held no better news for Meta.

On February 14, the Attorney General of Texas filed a suit against Facebook for storing and using biometric identifiers extracted from users’ pictures and videos without their informed consent.

While this kind of legal action is nothing new for the company and history suggests it is unlikely to result in anything but a fine, these kinds of headlines steadily chip away at public perception and trust.

In a much less mundane event, the now-former manager of global community development for Meta, Jeren Miles, found himself in the sights of an amateur sting operation by a group called PCI Predator Catchers.

In a two-hour video uploaded to the group’s YouTube channel, Miles admits to having graphic and inappropriate communications with a 13 year old boy. Miles has since deleted his social media accounts and a Meta spokesperson confirmed to TechCrunch that Miles is no longer employed by the company.

Meta aired an advertisement during the Super Bowl on February 14 for their new Quest 2 virtual reality system. While it intended to highlight the ability to reconnect with old friends using VR, the story suffers from horribly confused characterisation.

It imagines the user as a de-commissioned music-playing animatronic dog, saved from the trash and re-purposed for an unfulfilling job as a prop. Our down-on-his-luck protagonist is then gifted a VR headset which allows him to escape his dull job, reconnect with his animatronic friends and once again be able to play music together.

Intended or not, the subtext is foreboding and hard to shake. People stripped of interesting and rewarding work, given dull jobs which involve no agency or creativity - until in swoops the Quest 2 to repackage their old fulfilling experiences as digital escapism.

Meta’s Superbowl 2022 advertisement featuring an animatronic dog

The Metaverse also featured during an NBA All-Star Weekend presentation which introduced a future virtual basketball coach, Coach Nat, voiced by Shaquille O’Neal. The quick segment ends with Coach Nat stating that he can be “Superman” and floating into the air.

Confusingly, this line seems to expect the audience to be wowed by this despite it being utterly trivial in a digital environment. While this somewhat awkward presentation can likely be attributed more to the NBA than Meta itself, it does epitomise the current Metaverse marketing: light on details, dubiously beneficial, and bafflingly out of touch.

The month ended with Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg sitting down for two hours with popular podcast host Lex Fridman. While the irritable cloud of internet opinion will always find new jokes to make about Zuckerberg’s social ability, the CEO came across as comfortable, passionate, and authentic in his vision of the positive ways Meta platforms can connect people.

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