Around this time last year, Read Max issued a “don’t worry about it” rating for the metaverse, just one of many instances where the Read Max newsletter has provided an invaluable service to its many discerning subscribers. As we wrote at the time, “most normal readers do not need to know, care, or form opinions about ‘the metaverse’ […] Read Max recommends readers avoid discourse concerning ‘the metaverse’ and devote the brain power they might have spent thinking about the ‘the metaverse’ to reading a good book.” Read Max subscribers who took this indispensable (and, at $5/month or $50/year, inexpensive) advice no doubt forged closer relationships to family members, created unforgettable memories, etc. using the time and brain-power that non-subscribers to Read Max used to think about the metaverse.
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We stand by this rating. But we also note that “Horizon Worlds,” the virtual-reality world-building platform and hangout space owned by Meta Platforms, f/k/a Facebook, is nearing its one-year anniversary of being open the public, and we increasingly believe it’s worth using some portion of your psychic energy to consume certain journalistic descriptions of the metaverse, because they are very funny to read, such as the following sequence from the Wall Street Journal:
On a recent night, a female Journal reporter visited one of Horizon’s most popular virtual worlds, the Soapstone Comedy Club. It had about 20 users in it, all appearing as avatars. When the reporter introduced herself and tried to conduct an interview with a small group, one user replied: “You can report on me, baby.” The same user then asked her to expose herself.
One user who was flirting with a woman in the crowd was interrupted by what appeared to be his real-life girlfriend yelling obscenities at him in the background. […]
The next day, a male Journal reporter visited a “house party” in which he was one of two people in attendance. He and the other avatar jumped into a boxing ring and fought for a round while wearing jack-o-lantern sparring headgear, then played beer pong. The other avatar never spoke and the game ended after about 10 minutes. The reporter’s avatar later fell into the pool and couldn’t figure out how to get out. There was no one around to help.
“Oh, that’s me. I sleep in my headset,” said Sam, a redhead in a blazer, one night in the Soapstone. “Imagine waking up in the most amazing place in the universe.”
I thought she was kidding, but she insisted that she was serious. “What does your bedroom look like? Is it where you want to live the rest of your life?” she asked.
I told her I liked my bedroom. She persisted: “That’s where you want to die?”
I said that I didn’t want to die anytime soon but that I did like my bedroom.
“That’s depressing,” she said. “You should aspire to better things.”
To be clear, Read Max’s rating of the metaverse as a discursive object has not changed. We still believe that, at present, your time is better spent thinking and forming opinions about almost anything else. Nevertheless, given the increasing volume of coverage of Horizon Worlds, a/k/a Facebook’s metaverse, Read Max’s globally celebrated research and analysis department is currently examining our proprietary statistical models and occult warning systems to catch any shifts in the need for normal human beings to care about the metaverse.
Our early-observation team has flagged two factors in particular as potentially requiring close monitoring: First, as Ben Tarnoff and John Herrman have both pointed out, the metaverse is likely to soon become an object of interest to bosses and middle managers, if it is not already, at which point it is almost certainly going to become an object of discourse and irritation to the rest of us.
Second, in the wake of the whole thing with Mark Zuckerberg’s avatar and subsequent reporting that no one who works there uses it, the situation with Facebook’s metaverse has been upgraded from not that interesting to undeniably pretty funny.
In recognition of this fact, and because, frankly, Read Max has not actually been paying that close attention to Facebook’s whole metaverse deal, due to it seeming kind of depressing and boring, the research and analysis department has been undertaking intense research and analysis to catch up on what the hell Facebook has been doing, the product of which is this comprehensive timeline of Facebook’s journey into the metaverse. While, again, we recommend not thinking about the metaverse, it might be useful to remind yourself of where this metaverse came from, and what it’s looking like right now.
Sophisticated evaluation and re-evaluation of the metaverse as discursive object is, of course, a resource-intensive process. If you enjoy the fruits of Read Max’s research, please considering paying to subscribe.
Meta’s Metaverse: a Timeline
Facebook purchases Oculus VR, a VR headset designer founded by Palmer Luckey, Nate Mitchell, and Brendan Iribe. Though the company has only produced a “developer kit” prototype of its headset, the Rift, Facebook pays $2 billion for the company and its talent. Contributors to the $2 million Kickstarter campaign that helped fund the first dev kit are unenthusiastic about the sale; Minecraft creator Markus Persson ends discussions about a VR version of his game because “Facebook creeps me out.” Luckey personally promises Oculus’s enthusiastic fan community that they “will not need a Facebook account to use or develop for the Rift.”
ZeniMax Media sues Facebook and Oculus, claiming that Oculus’s CTO John Carmack helped develop the Rift headset while still an employee of ZeniMax subsidiary Id. Carmack, a legendary video-game developer, left Id to join Oculus in 2013 after becoming convinced of the superiority of Luckey’s prototypes.
In a leaked memo, Mark Zuckerberg outlines a virtual reality/augmented reality strategy for Facebook. “Our goal is not only to win in VR/AR,” he writes, “but to accelerate its arrival.”
Oculus announces the first consumer version of the Rift will be available in March, priced at $600. On Reddit, Luckey apologizes to VR enthusiasts angry that the price tag is higher than the $350 “ballpark” figure Luckey had suggested in 2015, saying he “handled the messaging poorly” around the price.
In a live chat hosted on Facebook, Zuckerberg describes some of what he’s excited about with virtual reality. “Last week the president of Indonesia visited Facebook and I gave him the latest tour of Oculus,” he explains. “So we’re standing in different rooms and we start playing ping pong. Okay this is cool, but we could do this in with a normal table, so let’s make this interesting: Let’s dial up and down the gravity. Now we’re changing physics and we’re doing things we couldn’t otherwise do. So we played ping pong in zero gravity, like we’re in space. We’re hitting balls but I don’t hit it too hard because there’s no gravity, it’s gone. The good news is in virtual reality there are always more balls.”
The Daily Beast reports that Luckey and two moderators of Donald Trump-themed subreddit r/The_Donald founded a “shitposting” nonprofit called Nimble America with $10,000 of Luckey’s money. The news is received poorly by Facebook employees, who complain in town halls and on internal message boards. “Multiple women have literally teared up in front of me in the last few days,” one engineering director writes.
Mark Zuckerberg drafts an apology statement for Luckey to post, in which Luckey disavows Donald Trump’s candidacy and expresses his support for Libertarian Party candidate Ron Johnson. Following negotiations between Luckey’s lawyers and Facebook’s, Luckey posts a version of the apology that does not disavow Trump. In the final post, Luckey maintains that he did not post to r/The_Donald as “NimbleRichMan,” a claim Luckey specifically contradicted in emails to Daily Beast journalist Gideon Resnick. Facebook launches a human-resources investigation that ultimately finds Luckey innocent of violating company policies. Nevertheless, he is placed on paid leave.
Luckey votes for Ron Johnson, “but only to avoid having his credibility questioned if he was asked about the issue under oath in unrelated litigation.” He donates $100,000 to Trump’s inauguration committee.
A jury in the ZeniMax lawsuit holds Facebook liable for $500 million in damages, finding that Luckey violated a non-disclosure agreement, and that the company was liable for copyright infringement. Following the verdict, an unnamed Facebook executive asks Luckey, who is still technically on unpaid leave, to resign. Luckey declines. A judge later cuts the liability to $250 million; eventually, Facebook and ZeniMax settle.
Luckey is fired. Employment lawyers negotiate a $100 million settlement with Facebook.
Facebook launches Facebook Spaces, “a new VR app where you hang out with friends in a fun, interactive virtual environment as if you were in the same room.” Up to four people, with legless avatars derived from Facebook pictures, can gather together and use rudimentary tools to doodle, take photos, and talk.
Mark Zuckerberg apologizes for posting a video of himself “visiting” hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico in Facebook Spaces with Rachel Franklin, Facebook’s head of social VR. “Some people say that VR is isolating and antisocial. I actually think it’s the opposite,” Zuckerberg tells the audience at the Oculus Connect conference, announcing a goal “to get a billion people in virtual reality.”
Facebook releases a $199 VR headset called “Oculus Go.” Unlike the Rift, which requires an external computer but produces a higher-quality image, the Go can be used as a standalone headset.
An Oculus executive named Jason Rubin sends a memo to Facebook board member Marc Andreessen and Facebook executive Andrew Bosworth outlining a vision for a Facebook metaverse: a virtual city with stores, movie theaters, bowling alleys, and a “Facebook pavilion” that is “the largest building, almost church like in its dominance of the square.” He writes: “If delivering the Metaverse we set out to build doesn’t scare the living hell out of us, then it is not the Metaverse we should be building, it is not what customers want, and it is, therefore, meaningless,” he writes.
A second-generation Rift headset, codenamed “Caspar,” is canceled shortly before entering production. Oculus co-founder Brendan Iribe, who had been overseeing the Caspar project, quits, reportedly over frustration that Facebook was prioritizing cheaper products and audience growth over the consumer experience.
Facebook releases the Oculus Quest, an all-in-one follow-up to the Go. It also releases the Rift S, a more modest update to the Rift than the “Caspar” overhaul.
Nate Mitchell, the last of Oculus’s three cofounders still working at the company, quits Facebook.
Facebook announces “Facebook Horizon,” a new virtual environment for Oculus owners in which legless avatars can gather to interact in user-created worlds. In anticipation of Horizon’s 2020 launch, Facebook shuts down Facebook Spaces. Horizon eventually launches in December 2021.
Accepting a lifetime achievement award, Oculus CTO John Carmack says he’s "often kind of grumpy around the office because I really haven't been satisfied with the pace of progress that we've been making.” A few days later, Carmack announces he’s leaving his full-time position at Oculus to focus on artificial intelligence.
Facebook announces users will need Facebook accounts for all future Oculus headsets.
Facebook halts Oculus sales in Germany over regulatory concerns about tying the headsets to Facebook accounts.
Facebook releases a new headset, the Oculus Quest 2, and accidentally locks some users with suspended Facebook accounts out of their headsets.
A group of Facebook employees on an internal message board discuss the problem of racism in the game environment “Rec Room,” reports of which pop up “like clockwork.” “Our lack of integrity requirements lets racism thrive in VR,” one employee concludes.
In an internal memo later leaked by Frances Haugen, Bosworth, the executive in charge of Facebook’s Metaverse efforts, writes that he wants “almost Disney levels of safety” but that moderation “at any meaningful scale is practically impossible.”
Facebook begins testing VR ads “inside the Resolution Games title Blaston as well as two other unnamed apps.”
Facebook halts sales of the Quest 2 and recalls the foam piece used to cushion the headset against users’ faces following thousands of complaints that the foam causes “extreme swelling and redness” or “intense itching, redness, and… swollen eyes.” “You can think about the metaverse as an embodied internet,” Zuckerberg tells the Verge’s Casey Newton, “where instead of just viewing content -- you are in it.”
Facebook launches a beta of Horizon Workrooms, a remote-workplace app in which the now-familiar legless avatars can take meetings with coworkers. Bosworth describes the launch as “one of those foundational steps.”
Facebook rebrands itself “Meta Platforms, Inc.,” d/b/a “Meta.” “Over time, I hope we are seen as a metaverse company, and I want to anchor our work and our identity on what we’re building towards,” Zuckerberg says. Public trust in the company drops 5 percent, according to a Harris Poll finding.
Meta begins to rebrand the Oculus Quest 2 as the Meta Quest 2. Marc Lucovsky, an engineer leading a multi-year effort to build a proprietary virtual-reality operating system, leaves Meta. “I made my decision to leave Facebook after the 60 Minutes interview on 10/4, subsequent readings of the material supplied to the SEC, and the company’s new metaverse-centric focus,” he later tells the Information. Soon after, Meta shuts down the project.
Horizon Worlds officially opens to the public. A beta tester reports being harassed. “Sexual harassment is no joke on the regular internet, but being in VR adds another layer that makes the event more intense,” she posts to the official beta testers Facebook group. “Not only was I groped last night, but there were other people there who supported this behavior which made me feel isolated in the Plaza.”
Meta announces a four-foot personal boundary will be enforced by default unless users choose to turn it off. “Metaverse isn't a thing a company builds. It's the next chapter of the internet overall,” Zuckerberg says during an appearance at SXSW.
A poll of Meta employees on the anonymous Silicon Valley posting platform Blind finds only 58 percent of them feel they understand Meta’s metaverse strategy.
The FTC sues to block Meta’s acquisition of the VR company Within, arguing that the merger would be anti-competitive.
In a Facebook post, Zuckerberg announces that Horizon Worlds is expanding to France and Spain. The accompanying image, of Zuckerberg’s avatar near the Eiffel Tower, is described by journalist C.D. Hooks on Twitter as looking “like a 2002 Nintendo GameCube release called like ‘World Baby.’” A few days later, Zuckerberg posts an image with a higher-quality avatar, claiming that “The photo I posted earlier this week was pretty basic, it was taken very quickly to celebrate a launch” and that “The graphics in Horizon are capable of much more.” In a post on LinkedIn, a 3D artist writes that he designed the new avatar posted by Zuckerberg, and that it took four weeks and 40 iterations to perfect. “Could not be more stoked,” he writes. The LinkedIn post is later deleted.
In a September 15 memo first reported by the Verge, Meta’s VP of the Metaverse, Vishal Shah, castigates his employees for not using the Metaverse often enough. “For many of us, we don’t spend that much time in Horizon and our dogfooding dashboards show this pretty clearly,” he writes. “Why is that? Why don’t we love the product we’ve built so much that we use it all the time? The simple truth is, if we don’t love it, how can we expect our users to love it?” In a follow-up memo two weeks later, Shah refers to a plan to “hold managers accountable” in making their reports use Horizon Worlds: “Everyone in this organization should make it their mission to fall in love with Horizon Worlds. You can’t do that without using it. Get in there. Organize times to do it with your colleagues or friends, in both internal builds but also the public build so you can interact with our community.”
Zuckerberg announces the Quest Pro, a $1,500 headset aimed at architects and designers, and releases a video of new avatars with legs. The Wall Street Journal reports that Horizon Worlds currently has fewer than 200,000 monthly active users, and that Zuckerberg’s target of 500,000 monthly active users by the end of 2022 has been revised down to 280,000. According to internal reports, the user base is declining a most people don’t spend more than a month using the service. “An empty world is a sad world,” the memo laments. Meta admits that the video of avatars with legs was “preview of what’s to come” made using “animations created from motion capture” rather than actual footage.
A real missed opportunity to include the WSJ line "in Murder Village there is often no one to kill" —which I have not, and cannot, stop thinking about. But an excellent read, as always
I subscribed to your stack because of this article. Simply amazing analysis and great writing as ever, Maxwell