The Reality Labs division of Meta Platforms, the multinational tech conglomerate formerly known as Facebook, lost US$4.3 billion in the fourth quarter of 2022—bringing total losses for the year to $13.7 billion—according to an earnings report posted on Wednesday, February 1. The purpose of Reality Labs, and the meaning of the company’s rebranding as Meta, is what CEO Mark Zuckerberg has described as his “holy grail”: technology that will allow users to meet, socialize, work, and play games in an immersive “metaverse” of augmented and virtual reality. Meta will, Zuckerberg says, create “an embodied internet where you’re in the experience, not just looking at it,” and where the defining quality of the experience is a “feeling of presence.” So far, there’s very limited evidence of consumer demand for this technology. Meanwhile, the company laid off 11,000 employees in November. And yet Meta remains committed to the course. Where’s it headed?

Siva Vaidhyanathan is the Robertson Professor of Media Studies and the director of the Center for Media and Citizenship at the University of Virginia—and the author of Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy. Vaidhyanathan sees Zuckerberg’s investment in the metaverse as an extension of his original vision for Facebook—and ultimately, an expression of his belief that virtual and augmented reality can realize that vision without Facebook’s social and psychological downsides. Meta’s losses and layoffs, Vaidhyanathan notes, stem mostly from transitional business issues; its bet on the metaverse is still open. But the question, he says, isn’t just whether the metaverse is something consumers will want; it’s whether it’s something human beings will be willing to sustain deeper into the century—any more than they were able to sustain totalizing, collectivist visions of human consciousness in the last.

Vyse: Facebook was one of the biggest companies in the world when it reoriented itself around the idea of the metaverse. How do you understand the transition?

Vaidhyanathan: Like any company, Facebook was looking at emerging challenges to its business and considering its strategic options for the long term. But fundamentally, the metaverse represents Mark Zuckerberg’s fullest vision of the future—and what he sees as his company’s opportunity to shape it.

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