The Metaverse, a term coined from Neal Stephenson’s 1992 techno-dystopian novel “Snow Crash,” has been a topic of discussion in the tech industry for years. It was envisioned as a new frontier, a virtual reality space where users could interact in a simulated universe. Meta, formerly known as Facebook, aimed to lead this virtual revolution by building a future where work and social interactions could be conducted from anywhere in an immersive 3D world.
However, in 2023, the company that championed the Metaverse is ironically pushing its employees out of the virtual world and back into the office. The irony is stark, as the company that boasted about creating a revolutionary technology now seems to be forcing its employees to revert to old ways of working.
As part of Mark Zuckerberg’s plan to cut costs, shake up the company culture, and redirect focus in response to a slower growth in the tech industry, Meta has laid off a total of 21,000 employees in 2023 during its “year of efficiency.” Unfortunately, the layoffs have had a negative impact on employee morale, leaving many uncertain about their futures and some reportedly unsure of what to focus on. This uncertainty also extends to the company’s return-to-office plans, which have been described as providing “consistent expectations and guidelines” for when and how often employees need to be in the office in person.
Starting this fall, Meta employees, who are assigned to a specific office, are expected to work on site at least three days per week. While Zuckerberg insists that the company is “committed to distributed work,” the new office policy might exacerbate the already existing morale crisis at Meta.
All of this is happening while the Metaverse, Meta’s virtual reality-fueled dream, appears to be failing. Since Facebook’s rebranding to Meta and its big bet on the Metaverse, Meta’s value has plummeted. The Metaverse itself has been criticized for its apparent lack of innovation. Celia Pearce, an associate professor of game design at Northeastern, even compared it to the virtual worlds of the mid-90s. She calls out Meta’s “lack of awareness of what’s actually going on now and what happened before” in non-game virtual spaces. This suggests that the company missed the mark in terms of creating something that would appeal to the right audience.
Meta’s insistence on returning employees to physical offices while the Metaverse, a concept that was supposed to eliminate the need for physical presence, is failing, paints a picture of a company at odds with itself. The irony is certainly not lost on those of us observing from the sidelines. Despite the missteps, the core idea of the Metaverse remains appealing, with the potential for creating special connections and communities. It’s just a matter of figuring out how to get there, something that Meta seems to be struggling with thus far. However, rumors of an Apple augmented/virtual reality headset might revive the concept.