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Doubt, Confusion, and Frustration: Inside Mark Zuckerberg’s Metaverse Struggle

Last October, when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced that the company would change its name to Meta and become a “metaverse company,” he outlined a vision of a utopian future inhabited by billions of people overwhelmingly for many years. years. Digital environments for long hours of work, socializing and gaming within virtual and augmented worlds.

The following year, Meta spent billions of dollars and dedicated thousands of employees to fulfill Zuckerberg’s dream. But the Metaverse’s efforts got off to a rocky start.

The company’s flagship VR game, Horizon Worlds, continues to be buggy and unpopular, prompting Meta to implement a “quality lock” for the rest of the year while it updates the app.

Some Meta employees have complained about frequent strategic changes that seem to be related to Zuckerberg’s whims rather than a coherent plan.

Meta executives discussed the company’s struggling strategy, with one senior leader complaining that the amount of money the company spent on unproven projects made “my stomach turn.”

The company’s struggle to reshape the business was outlined in interviews with more than a dozen current and former Meta employees and internal communications obtained by The New York Times. The people spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on internal matters.

On Tuesday, Meta is expected to present V.R. A headset at a developer conference, along with other new features from the metaverse. The stakes are high for the company, which is racing to transform to offset downturns in other parts of its business. TikTok is driving younger users away from Facebook and Instagram, two of Meta’s biggest moneymakers, and Apple made privacy changes to the mobile operating system that cost Meta billions of dollars in ad revenue.

The company’s share price has plunged nearly 60 percent in the past year, a reflection not only of general market turmoil, but also of skepticism from some investors that Methodist could be very profitable anytime soon. . In late September, the company announced it would freeze most hiring, and Zuckerberg warned employees about the possibility of layoffs.

“The pressures for the Meta business in 2022 are acute, significant and unrelated to scale,” said Matthew Ball, an investor and Metaverse expert whose advice Zuckerberg sought. “And there’s a risk that almost everything Mark has said about the metaverse is true, except that the time is farther away than he had imagined.”

Andy Stone, a spokesman for Meta, said in a statement that the company believes it is still on the right track.

“It’s easy to laugh at new and innovative technology,” said Mr. Stone. “It’s actually much harder to build, but that’s what we’re doing because we believe the metaverse is the future of computing.”

Zuckerberg reviewed his company a decade ago, focusing on how his products work on smartphones rather than desktop computers. He noted a similar change last year, saying that investing in the metaverse would allow Meta to transition from one technological age to the next.

There are some indications that the Meta bet has put it ahead of the competitors. The consumer of the company V.R. The headset, the Quest 2, is the most iconic of V.R. Headphones on the market have sold more than 15 million, according to outside estimates. Oculus VR The app, which has since been renamed Meta Quest, has been installed more than 21 million times on iOS and Android devices, according to an estimate by Sensor Tower, an app analytics company.

But Meta’s future success depends on the company’s ability to provide virtual reality and augmented reality tools to a much larger number of people.

Meta said in February that the Horizon Worlds game had grown to nearly 300,000 monthly active users, an increase from recent months but minuscule compared to Facebook’s more than 2.9 billion monthly active users. The company declined to provide more recent numbers for Horizon Worlds.

Adding to Meta’s problems are US regulators who seem determined to prevent the company from moving towards success, as happened with the purchase of Instagram and WhatsApp. In July, the Federal Trade Commission sued Meta to prevent it from acquiring Inside, the maker of V.R. fitness app. Meta is fighting the agency’s lawsuit, calling it “incorrect on the facts and the law.”

Zuckerberg, determined to reshape his public image after years in the spotlight for unpopular decisions on Facebook’s political rhetoric, has surprised some employees by becoming the innovative face of the company’s fickle momentum. Demos and mockups from the latest metaverse show footage of Zuckerberg performing a V.R. Versions of his hobbies, including fencing and surf-like water sports called airboats. The CEO recently visited Joe Rogan’s podcast, where he told the popular comedian that building an immersive Metaverse channel is the “holy grail.”

His participation has sometimes failed. In August, Zuckerberg posted a screenshot of his Horizon Worlds avatar on his Facebook page, along with an announcement that the app would be expanding to France and Spain. But the flat, cartoonish look of the avatar was widely derided. (One reviewer compared it to the “2002 version of the Nintendo GameCube”.)

After that response, Zuckerberg and other executives directed employees to prioritize improving the appearance of avatars, according to two employees. Facebook spokesman Stone described Zuckerberg’s reaction to the avatar reaction as “disappointing” but did not provide additional details.

The two employees said a new version of Zuckerberg’s digital look was being fast-tracked, along with updates to other incarnations of Horizon Worlds that were in the works.

Four days after Zuckerberg’s original post, he shared that updated digital version of himself, admitting that his first avatar was “very basic” while “Horizon’s graphics are capable of so much more.” An official Meta artist claimed in a since-deleted LinkedIn post that he and his team created nearly 40 versions of Zuckerberg’s face over a four-week period before accepting the final version.

Zuckerberg’s enthusiasm for metaviruses has been met with skepticism by some Meta employees. This year, he encouraged teams to hold meetings within Meta’s Horizon Workrooms app, which allows users to meet in virtual conference rooms. But many employees did not own a V.R. Hearing aids or not yet set up, and we had to scramble to purchase and register devices before managers discovered them, according to a person familiar with the events.

In a May survey of 1,000 Meta employees conducted by Blind, an anonymous professional social network, only 58 percent said they understood the company’s fighting strategy. Employees also complained about high staff turnover and frequent staff changes as Zuckerberg’s priorities shifted. Inside Meta, two employees said some workers now jokingly refer to major metaverse projects as M.M.H. , which is an acronym for “Make Mark Happy”.

In September, Vishal Shah, vice president in charge of Meta’s metaverse division, wrote on an internal message board that he was disappointed that there were so few Meta employees using Horizon Worlds, according to a post obtained by The Times.

In his post, first published by The Verge, Shah said managers would start tracking workers’ use of Horizon Worlds, and said testing its technology was essential.

“Why don’t we love our product so much that we use it all the time?” Mr. Shah asked. “The simple fact is, if we don’t like it, how can we expect our users to like it?”

Shah, who declined to comment for The Times, also said in his letter that Horizon will be subject to a “quality shutdown” for the rest of the year to “elevate craftsmanship in general and delight our products.”

As Meta works to increase its reach, some in the company have suggested unorthodox ideas to attract new users. This summer, three Meta employees suggested V.R. Hearing aids to Americans who got student debt relief from the Biden administration, believing it could boost hearing aid sales by 20 percent, according to an internal publication seen by The Times.

“This is a growth opportunity for Meta Quest, as there is evidence that the previous federal stimulus stimulated growth,” the analysis read. The company does not appear to have followed the advice.

One notable expert who has challenged Zuckerberg’s approach to the metaverse is John Carmack, a famous game developer and former Oculus CTO, V.R. Facebook acquired nearly $2 billion in 2014. He continues to work part-time at Meta as a consultant.

In a podcast interview in August, Mr. Carmack said the size of the Meta metaverse’s bet: Last year, he reported a $10 billion loss on the split that includes A.R. and V. R. Unidades: it made him “sick to the stomach thinking about so much money spent”. He added that the development of the Meta metaverse has been hampered by large corporate bureaucracy and concerns about issues such as diversity and privacy.

Mr. Carmack also spoke on Workplace, Meta’s internal message board. In posts obtained by The Times, Mr. Carmack, speaking at Tuesday’s developer conference, criticized V.R. Headphones, describing the need to run software updates before use as “a shame for user enjoyment”.

Carmack’s criticisms put him at odds with executives like Andrew Bosworth, Meta’s chief technology officer, who oversaw V.R. Efforts for years and a close ally of Mr. Zuckerberg. According to four employees who worked with him, Mr. Carmack urged the company to think about the metaverse primarily from the direct user experience, while Mr. Bosworth approached it from a long-term point of view focused on business opportunities. .

As pressure mounted, Zuckerberg sent a clear message to Meta employees: join or leave. At the June meeting first reported by Reuters, the 38-year-old billionaire noted that “there are probably a lot of people in the company who shouldn’t be here” and that he would be “overheating” expectations and goals, according to copies. . of his comments. It was shared with the Times. Since then, the company has frozen most hiring, slashed budgets, and Zuckerberg has asked managers to start identifying underperforming employees.

Faced with possible layoffs, some Meta employees are beginning to express more enthusiasm for the meta. Several employees said that more teams have held meetings inside the Horizon Workroom in recent months.

But the transformation was rocky. Earlier this year, Bosworth attempted to lead a staff meeting inside Horizon Workrooms, according to an employee who was present.

The employee said the meeting was canceled due to technical glitches and the team ended up using Zoom.

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