Mark Zuckerberg on his big metaverse bet: 'I feel a responsibility to go for it.'

In an interview with Protocol, the Meta CEO explains why he's committed to the metaverse and able to take shots that others won’t.

Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg

"I want to live in a world where big companies use their resources to take big shots."

Photo: Eliot Blondet/Abaca/Sipa via AP Images

Calling Meta’s metaverse push ambitious is a massive understatement: The company is spending billions of dollars a year on the development of next-generation augmented and virtual reality devices and the software that will run on them, as well as all-new social VR platforms like Horizon to rival gaming giants and Web3 startups.

If you ask Mark Zuckerberg, it’s all worth it. “I want to live in a world where big companies use their resources to take big shots,” the Meta chief executive told Protocol this week.

Zuckerberg sat down with Protocol for an exclusive conversation about the company’s investments in the metaverse, how it compares to Facebook’s transition to mobile a decade and a half ago, why Meta’s social VR world Horizon is a walled garden for the time being and how he eventually wants to open the doors to those platforms over time.

Check out our stories about Meta’s upcoming Cambria VR headset and Zuckerberg’s take on the importance of mixed reality experiences, and read on for his views on building the metaverse.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.

It’s been about seven months since Facebook changed its name to Meta. How often do you still have to explain that move, and what the metaverse even is all about?

You know, I'd actually say that this is going a lot better than I thought it would. There is definitely [the fact that] we are describing this future experience that's hard to really wrap your head around until you've used some of these devices. But there's been a lot more interest and excitement about the idea than expected when we put our flag in the ground and [said]: This is what we are going to work on for the next 20 years.

When I talk to friends who are running other companies in the industry, it spurred a lot of them to think about how their companies are going to want to exist in the metaverse, and contribute to building it. This isn't a thing that any one company is going to build. I view our role in accelerating some of the fundamental technology, building out the social platforms around it and working out some of the creator pieces. But there's clearly all these other things that have to happen; we can't build the whole thing.

Some critics have said that the Meta branding itself signals a desire to monopolize the metaverse. It’s as if Facebook had called itself The Internet.

Oh, but it’s not! By doing this, and choosing that name, we were pretty clear about what we wanted the focus of the company to be. But it's not like we're the only company working on this today. You have Nvidia building the chips, Unity and Unreal building a lot of the software infrastructure, as well as companies like Roblox building early versions of some of these experiences that could be open platforms over time. Satya at Microsoft talks about building an enterprise version of the metaverse.

The question is: How do we get these things to be as interoperable as possible? We want as much of the software as possible to run on our systems. We want avatars and commerce to build to [be interoperable].

I want to make sure that we use the other things that we're building to help develop some of these ecosystems. You saw the NFT announcement that we made on Instagram. At the end of the day, I don't think the most exciting thing to do with NFTs is to display a few things in your Instagram profile. But I view that as a starting point. It's not that far-fetched to imagine how being able to display some digital collectibles in your Instagram profile is a precursor to being able to have a shirt from your favorite brand that you can take from Horizon to then wear in Fortnite.

Right now, Horizon, Roblox and Fortnite are still essentially walled gardens. How do you build bridges between these different universes?

There is often a trade-off in the early days between making something that is a tightly optimized product experience and building an open protocol. For Horizon, it's early, and we need to right now focus on making sure that we get all the foundations of the product in place, and get some of the technical challenges sorted out.

That’s partially why I want us to do this NFT work with Instagram. With Horizon today, the team needs to be fully focused on just getting the product dialed before we work on open platforms. But that doesn't mean that somewhere else in the company we shouldn't be working on the open platform side of it. If you don't do that work, then you just wake up one day, and you built this closed thing, and it's like super hard to back out of that.

Does your investment in VR give you an advantage over platforms like Roblox and Fortnite, or do you need to play catch-up to their mobile experiences?

They've been doing some of this for longer, so they have some advantages there. But we also have a lot of people using our social platforms, and a good base to build on. And we are a company that can afford a big R&D effort, so we can work on a lot of different things at once. There are areas that look like we are pretty early, in terms of graphics or the quality of different things, where over the next 12 to 24 months, we're going to just make very dramatic progress.

For Horizon, making it so that you can create a world and share it on Facebook or Instagram, and people can just jump into it from there — that's going to be pretty valuable. For the foreseeable future, there are going to be a lot more people with phones than with VR. However, the experience that you can deliver with these new platforms is so much better. We need to be careful about not making it primarily a mobile experience. Balancing that is going to be pretty important.

It’s similar to when we transitioned to mobile. Our desktop use case was a lot bigger, and [we optimized] mobile for the same desktop technologies. We did this whole Faceweb thing [a mobile version of the Facebook website], and it didn't end up building the best experience we needed.

That’s an interesting analogy. At the time, the number of mobile users grew pretty quickly, but monetization lagged, and you had to convince people that this was where you needed to invest most of your energy, most of your money. Right now, you're spending pretty significant amounts of money on the metaverse, but the users are not quite there yet, and the monetization definitely isn’t there yet. How hard is it to make that case, and is it getting harder with the stock market being as rocky as it is right now?

I think there were few things as dramatic in our history as the shift to mobile. At the time, we had one app that was the whole business, and we were not wildly profitable. So it felt more like an existential question for the company.

With Reality Labs, [we are] making a bet of spending $10 billion or $15 billion a year trying to help invent the next set of platforms. Some people might think it's a good bet, some people might think it's a bad bet. But at the end of the day, I don't think that many people think we're at risk of going out of business because of it.

I want to live in a world where big companies use their resources to take big shots. Obviously, if people invest in our company, we want to be profitable for them. If employees join our company, I want to make sure that ends up being a good financial decision for them, too. But I also feel a responsibility to go for it. Use the position that we're in to make some bets, and try to push forward in a way that other people might not.

We're also not a typical company. It's a controlled company, so I can make more of these decisions than most companies would. That gives us even more responsibility to push for it and do things that other people might not be able to do.

We've gone through a bunch of content transitions at this point. When I started, it was primarily text. Then we got phones with cameras and photos, and mobile networks got better. Now, the Facebook app is half video. The time that people spend on Reels is more than 20% of the time that people are spending on Instagram.

But that's just not the end of the line. You're going to keep on getting more immersive. Whether it looks like a big bet today or not, I just think it's inevitable that something like this needs to get invented. And I want to just make sure that we can help make that possible.


What the economic downturn means for pay packages

The war for talent rages on, but dynamics are shifting back to the employers.

Compensation packages could start to look different as companies reshuffle the balance of cash and equity.

Illustration: Nuthawut Somsuk/Getty Images

The market is turning. Tech stocks are slumping — which is bad news for employees — and even industry powerhouses are slowing hiring and laying people off. Tech talent is still in high demand, but compensation packages could start to look different as companies recruit.

“It’s a little bit like whiplash,” compensation consultant Ashish Raina said of the downturn. Raina, who mainly works with startups that have 200 to 800 employees, previously worked as the director of Talent at Index Ventures and head of Compensation and Talent Analytics at Box. “I do think there’s going to be an interesting reckoning in terms of pay increases going forward, how that pay is delivered.”

Keep Reading Show less
Allison Levitsky
Allison Levitsky is a reporter at Protocol covering workplace issues in tech. She previously covered big tech companies and the tech workforce for the Silicon Valley Business Journal. Allison grew up in the Bay Area and graduated from UC Berkeley.
Sponsored Content

Why the digital transformation of industries is creating a more sustainable future

Qualcomm’s chief sustainability officer Angela Baker on how companies can view going “digital” as a way not only toward growth, as laid out in a recent report, but also toward establishing and meeting environmental, social and governance goals.

Three letters dominate business practice at present: ESG, or environmental, social and governance goals. The number of mentions of the environment in financial earnings has doubled in the last five years, according to GlobalData: 600,000 companies mentioned the term in their annual or quarterly results last year.

But meeting those ESG goals can be a challenge — one that businesses can’t and shouldn’t take lightly. Ahead of an exclusive fireside chat at Davos, Angela Baker, chief sustainability officer at Qualcomm, sat down with Protocol to speak about how best to achieve those targets and how Qualcomm thinks about its own sustainability strategy, net zero commitment, other ESG targets and more.

Keep Reading Show less
Chris Stokel-Walker

Chris Stokel-Walker is a freelance technology and culture journalist and author of "YouTubers: How YouTube Shook Up TV and Created a New Generation of Stars." His work has been published in The New York Times, The Guardian and Wired.


How 'Zuck Bucks' saved the 2020 election — and fueled the Big Lie

The true story of how Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan’s $419 million donation became the 2020 election’s most enduring conspiracy theory.

Mark Zuckerberg is smack in the center of one of the 2020 election’s multitudinous conspiracies.

Illustration: Mike McQuade; Photos: Getty Images

If Mark Zuckerberg could have imagined the worst possible outcome of his decision to insert himself into the 2020 election, it might have looked something like the scene that unfolded inside Mar-a-Lago on a steamy evening in early April.

There in a gilded ballroom-turned-theater, MAGA world icons including Kellyanne Conway, Corey Lewandowski, Hope Hicks and former president Donald Trump himself were gathered for the premiere of “Rigged: The Zuckerberg Funded Plot to Defeat Donald Trump.”

Keep Reading Show less
Issie Lapowsky

Issie Lapowsky ( @issielapowsky) is Protocol's chief correspondent, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. She also oversees Protocol's fellowship program. Previously, she was a senior writer at Wired, where she covered the 2016 election and the Facebook beat in its aftermath. Prior to that, Issie worked as a staff writer for Inc. magazine, writing about small business and entrepreneurship. She has also worked as an on-air contributor for CBS News and taught a graduate-level course at New York University's Center for Publishing on how tech giants have affected publishing.


From frenzy to fear: Trading apps grapple with anxious investors

After riding the stock-trading wave last year, trading apps like Robinhood have disenchanted customers and jittery investors.

Retail stock trading is still an attractive business, as shown by the news that crypto exchange FTX is dipping its toes in the market by letting some U.S. customers trade stocks.

Photo: Lam Yik/Bloomberg via Getty Images

For a brief moment, last year’s GameStop craze made buying and selling stocks cool, even exciting, for a new generation of young investors. Now, that frenzy has turned to fear.

Robinhood CEO Vlad Tenev pointed to “a challenging macro environment” marked by rising prices and interest rates and a slumping market in a call with analysts explaining his company’s lackluster results. The downturn, he said, was something “most of our customers have never experienced in their lifetimes.”

Keep Reading Show less
Benjamin Pimentel

Benjamin Pimentel ( @benpimentel) covers crypto and fintech from San Francisco. He has reported on many of the biggest tech stories over the past 20 years for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dow Jones MarketWatch and Business Insider, from the dot-com crash, the rise of cloud computing, social networking and AI to the impact of the Great Recession and the COVID crisis on Silicon Valley and beyond. He can be reached at bpimentel@protocol.com or via Google Voice at (925) 307-9342.


Broadcom is reportedly in talks to acquire VMware

It hasn't been long since it left the ownership of Dell Technologies.

Photo: Yichuan Cao/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Broadcom is said to be in discussions with VMware to buy the cloud computing company for as much as $50 billion.

Keep Reading Show less
Jamie Condliffe

Jamie Condliffe ( @jme_c) is the executive editor at Protocol, based in London. Prior to joining Protocol in 2019, he worked on the business desk at The New York Times, where he edited the DealBook newsletter and wrote Bits, the weekly tech newsletter. He has previously worked at MIT Technology Review, Gizmodo, and New Scientist, and has held lectureships at the University of Oxford and Imperial College London. He also holds a doctorate in engineering from the University of Oxford.

Latest Stories