Herman Narula didn’t hold back in his criticism of Mark Zuckerberg’s metaverse ambitions at the Sifted Summit last week.
The CEO and cofounder of games company Improbable had a spring in his step as he took to the stage, fresh off raising a $100m round at a $3bn valuation earlier in the week. And when asked if his company — which builds technology to make large-scale, simulated virtual worlds — had benefited from Facebook’s name change to Meta and the ensuing surge in interest in the metaverse, he leapt at the opportunity to throw shade at the Zuck.
“It wasn’t so much the renaming of the company that was helpful. It was the completely disastrous strategy that followed,” said Narula. “Every single company and enterprise wanting to build services relevant to the metaverse felt a deep fear [about Facebook owning the metaverse].”
Those companies are worried, he claimed, because they think that Meta will do to the metaverse what it’s done to our current version of the internet: monopolise user data and revenues from social media.
“Companies that have massive communities — whether in sport, fashion or music — perceive themselves to be under-utilising, under-monetising and under-engaging those communities,” Narula said. “They understand how they’ve been disintermediated from those [social media] communities online, and they want to change that.”
The dawn of the metaverse could change their fortunes.
Narula said that Improbable is now seeing huge interest from companies that want to build metaverse experiences. He said they see his company’s metaverse platform — M² — as a more democratic and decentralised metaverse system than Meta’s.
This democratisation and decentralisation, he argued, will be ensured by the fact that Improbable will be owned by its users.
The M² metaverse will have its own currency to pay for the exchange of virtual goods and services on the platform. Narula said that Improbable will own no more than 10% of that currency. He argued that this will mean that Improbable won’t be the masters of its own metaverse, and the community that uses the network will have a bigger say over how it’s run.
Metaverse optimists hope that this decentralisation of power in Web3 will mean that creators who publish content online will be able to earn a bigger share of revenue than those using, for example, YouTube or Instagram in the Web2 world. That’s because less money will go to powerful platforms like Google and Meta that act as advertising gatekeepers.
Narula also said that Meta was unfit to run a responsible metaverse where issues like abuse and harassment are taken seriously.
Responding to an account from a Londoner named Nina Jane Patel — who said that she’d been sexually harassed “within 60 seconds of joining” Meta’s Venues platform — Narula called the story “horrifying”.
He said that Meta could have prevented such an incident from occurring “in 100 different ways that I’m sure the audience could list as well” and said that Improbable’s metaverse would “force rules” on the way that users operate.
Narula added that Facebook can’t be trusted when it comes to responsible moderation of online communities, saying that its track record on policing misinformation speaks for itself.
“Facebook consistently argues that they can’t data police misinformation,” he said. “Then you look at something like Wikipedia — it has a tiny fraction of the funding and manpower of Facebook and yet, consistently, we use it on a daily basis to find facts and can be confident in their accuracy.”
Narula said that hiring moderators to police behaviour in the metaverse will be vital to its success, and added that Facebook’s reputation is already having a negative impact on society’s perception of this new phase of the online world.
“We’re in this bizarre world where the disaster that is Facebook’s influence on our culture is seen by many people as a vision of the metaverse,” he said. “I think what we learn is that Facebook probably shouldn’t build the metaverse.”
Sifted reached out to Meta for a response to Narula’s points.
Tim Smith is Sifted’s Iberia correspondent. He tweets from @timmpsmith