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When Will Zuckerberg Start Solving Problems In The Real World, Not Create A Virtual One?

In this context, Meta’s new plans reflect an hard-to-defend threefold escapism, both from reality and from responsbility.


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Jeroen Kraaijenbrink

4 months ago | 4 min read
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Facebook has rebranded itself to Meta. As Zuckerberg explains in his founder’s letter, it’s not just a new name, but “the beginning of the next chapter for the internet, and it’s the next chapter for our company too.”

The core of this next chapter is building a “metaverse.” Its defining quality will be “a feeling of presence—like you are right there with another person or in another place.

Feeling truly present with another person is the ultimate dream of social technology.” Think Second Life of VR Chat, but more advanced and invasive, experienced through VR glasses.

Good Business?

Reception of Zuckerberg’s new plans has not been unequivocally positive. On the contrary. Words used to describe the plans to develop a metaverse include “escape hatch,” “dystopian,” “a bad idea,” and “a privacy nightmare,” to name just a few.

Key concerns include a further distancing from the real world and the fact that it doesn’t at all address Facebook’s inherent problems around privacy, hate speech, and fake news.

Business and money-wise it makes sense. Given Facebook’s focus on social technology and the developments in VR and 3D technology, building a metaverse seems a logical, or perhaps even inevitable next step.

And there will undoubtedly be heaps of opportunities to monetize the metaverse, adding additional billions to their reserves—it’s not hard to imagine the opportunities created by virtual advertisements and hyper-personal data gathering.

Activities that would normally be done offline, would now be registered, quite literally, in cyberspace, allowing for a whole new level of targeted advertisements.

But, business and money are not the benchmarks anymore in the age of awareness—the 2020s in which climate change, inequality and the other Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations top the political and corporate agendas.

Society asks more from business than building great products and making money alone, and increasingly so.

A Threefold Escape From Reality And Responsibility

In this context, Meta’s new plans reflect an hard-to-defend threefold escapism, both from reality and from responsbility.

First, as also highlighted in the New York Timesthe transition to Meta can be seen as an escape for Zuckerberg from Facebook’s troubled present toward a fresh start under a new name and brand. Clean sheets, no stains, Zuckerberg must have thought.

Second, the whole metaverse idea itself reflects an escapism from reality. Literature, movies, video games, as well as drugs, all provide a way to temporarily escape from reality and immerse yourself in a virtual world. So does metaverse.

But, if done well, to a new degree. With technology now being able to generate hyper-realistic fake worlds, a metaverse provides the ultimate escape from the real world.

Third, and the point that has hardly been addressed so far, focusing Facebook’s resources and power on building a virtual world takes away these same resources and power from solving real problems in the real world.

How much longer can a company of such size and scope afford such escape?

The Responsible Alternative?

Zuckerberg argues that his company is first and foremost there for the people. In his founder’s letter there is a section aspiringly called “Our Role and Responsibility.”

As he says there, “We don’t build services to make money; we make money to build better services.” and “Our mission remains the same — it’s still about bringing people together.”

In sum, Zuckerberg’s primary purpose and responsibility are creating social platforms and investing heavily in them. In that light Meta makes sense. It is fully consistent with this mission.

But, in the wake of Meta, Zuckerberg skirts responsibility for Facebook’s real impact on the world. And not only for the problems created by and within Facebook, but for the problems that really matter.

Imagine that Zuckerberg would spend his money not on building a metaverse—a virtual world—but on solving problems in the real world: climate change, pollution, education, inequality, war, and so on.

Money they have. As announced around the same time as the rebranding, Facebook made a $9 billion profit based on $29 billion revenues last quarter—a 17% increase in profits and a 35% increase in revenues due to a boom in online advertising.

And, as Zuckerberg has announced, the plan is to invest $10 billion this year on Facebook Reality Labs, and with the credo “From now on, we will be metaverse-first, not Facebook-first” we can expect that tens of billions will be invested in the metaverse over the coming years.

Technology and data they have too. With close to 3 billion users and its advanced data analytics techniques, whatever Facebook does makes a difference, no matter what. They cannot hide behind a “we’re a social media company that wants to bring people together” façade anymore.

They have a much bigger responsibility to bear on how information is spread. They hold significant power in this world and are arguably more influential and more powerful than many governments.

Imagine what they could do if they used their data and technology full swing for solving real world problems.

With other brands taking bold actions for ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) goals in 2022 where governments fail to act, it’s not far-fetched to imagine what Facebook could mean in a time where trust in our governments is at a historically low level.

Using all that power, technology and money to build a virtual utopian—or dystopian—VR enabled metaverse is a tremendous missed opportunity. Meta is not only too big to fail. They are also too big to not take responsibility for the real problems of this world.

Follow me on Twitter or LinkedIn. Check out my website or some of my other work here.

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Jeroen Kraaijenbrink

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Strategy consultant, mentor, writer and speaker

Dr Jeroen Kraaijenbrink is an accomplished strategy educator, speaker, writer and consultant with over two decades of experience bridging academia and industry. Drawing from cognitive psychology, humanism, Saint Benedict, and a wide range of other sources, he is the author of numerous articles on strategy, sustainability and personal leadership and five books: Strategy Consulting, No More Bananas, Unlearning Strategy, and the two-volume practical guide to strategy The Strategy Handbook. He is an active Forbes contributor where he writes about strategy, leadership and how to embrace the complexity and uncertainty of this world. Jeroen has a PhD in industrial management, teaches strategy at the University of Amsterdam Business School, and has helped many midsized and larger companies across the engineering, manufacturing, healthcare and financial services industries.


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