Facebook wants to be a metaverse company. What does that mean for Facebook.com?

Will the metaverse kill Facebook's legacy apps and services?

Photo of smartphone with Facebook apps

Will the metaverse replace Facebook's existing apps and services?

Photo: Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images

At this week's Facebook Connect conference, Mark Zuckerberg is expected to unveil additional details about his company's quest to build the metaverse. That includes a new generation of social media services that brings real-time communication to AR, VR and other platforms, complete with varying degrees of embodied presence (in the future, we'll all be avatars).

Facebook has been spending heavily on this endeavor, including more than $10 billion in 2021 alone. During Thursday's Connect keynote, Zuckerberg is expected to share a few more details on what all this money is being spent on, including an update on the company's social VR world, called Horizon.

But while the metaverse is starting to take shape, one question still remains to be answered: If Facebook wants to be a metaverse company, then what does that mean for Facebook, the blue app and service? And that leads to another question: Is there room in the metaverse for Instagram, Messenger and WhatsApp?

One possibility: The metaverse will replace social media as we know it. Video may not have killed the radio star, but social media has had its fair share of has-beens. Remember Friendster, Myspace, Bebo?

  • Facebook's newly announced financial reporting changes seem to support this notion. Starting in Q4, the company will break out revenue and expenses for FRL, the unit tasked with building AR and VR hardware and services as well as devices like the Portal.
  • Most of Facebook's existing business will be reported as part of a new "Family of Apps" segment that includes Facebook's blue app, Instagram, WhatsApp, Messenger and more. It's where all the money is coming from these days, but the grouping also has a strong legacy business stench to it.
  • In a way, this seems reminiscent of Netflix's decision to break out its then-nascent streaming business from its DVD subscription business. And we all know how that turned out.
  • There's already some evidence that parts of Facebook's legacy business have plateaued; daily active user metrics for Facebook, the service, have essentially been flat in Europe and North America since the beginning of 2020 — a trend that is apparently so alarming to the company that it now wants to refocus on young adults.

But Facebook has had a lot more misses lately when it comes to launching things from scratch. Some of the company's biggest services have been acquisitions, and efforts to launch new standalone media services have largely fallen flat.

  • Take IGTV, for instance: The video service launched with great fanfare, and a dedicated app, in 2018. Those efforts never really paid off, and three years later, IGTV got essentially folded back into Instagram.
  • Facebook Watch, which launched in 2017 with a massive slate of originals, hasn't really fared much better. Many of those originals have since been canceled, and key publishing partners have pulled back on their Watch investments.
  • That's not to say that Facebook's focus on video was wrong: Zuckerberg had predicted in 2016 that "the vast majority of the content that people consume online will be video" in the future. Five years later, video viewing accounted for almost half the time people spent on Facebook.
  • However, that time isn't being spent in a Facebook-operated standalone video service, or even a dedicated Watch tab with Hollywood-made content. Instead, people just watch a ton of videos in their feeds.

The good news for Facebook is that the metaverse needs a lightweight social layer, and Facebook's existing family of apps may be able to provide just that.

  • Even with AR and VR improving every year, we won't be wearing headsets and glasses all day long anytime soon. Metaverse services will have to extend to mobile and ambient computing, giving people a chance to participate via videoconference or Clubhouse-like spatial audio.
  • Even when we are in AR or VR, we may not always want to commit to a fully embodied presence. Call it a social mute button, a VR incognito mode, or even the metaverse equivalent of participating in a Zoom call with your camera off: There will be times when you'll want to use the next computing platform without all the social bells and whistles.
  • To transition back and forth between different devices as well as varying levels of social participation, we'll need services that can communicate our status, as well as easily help us gather our friends or co-workers — functionality that can be easily added to apps like Messenger and WhatsApp.
  • And while the metaverse is all about real-time interaction, we'll still want spaces to share memories, both from the real world as well as all these new worlds, with friends and family across device boundaries. That's where Facebook and Instagram come in.

Zuckerberg seems to be committed to bringing these legacy properties along as the company prepares for the metaverse. The metaverse "needs to work everywhere," Zuckerberg told analysts on the company's Q3 earnings call Monday. "It needs to be able to work across our whole family of apps. It needs to be able to work on the web and on phones and on computers."

Facebook may become a metaverse company, and perhaps even change its name along the way. But for better or for worse, Facebook will still be Facebook.

A version of this story will appear in Thursday's Source Code. Sign up here to get it in your inbox every day.

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