“Metaverse” means “pivot to video”

Fool me twice, we don’t get fooled again.

Cory Doctorow
9 min readDec 18, 2022

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“Oh come, now, you don’t mean to let on that you like it?”

The brush continued to move.

“Like it? Well, I don’t see why I oughtn’t to like it. Does a boy get a chance to whitewash a fence every day?”

That put the thing in a new light. Ben stopped nibbling his apple. Tom swept his brush daintily back and forth — stepped back to note the effect — added a touch here and there — criticised the effect again — Ben watching every move and getting more and more interested, more and more absorbed. Presently he said:

“Say, Tom, let me whitewash a little.”

- Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

In 2003, a 19-year-old Harvard undergrad named Mark Zuckerberg had an idea: he’d create a website for Harvard students to nonconsensually rate the fuckability of their classmates. He called it Facemash.

Later that year, Zuckerberg changed the name of the site to The Facebook, and, in 2005, the site was renamed, simply, “Facebook.”

Facebook originally limited its userbase to American university students, requiring a .edu email address for signups, but that criteria was swiftly jettisoned as Zuckerberg and his investors sought out new audiences to drive growth. In 2006, the site flung its doors open to anyone with a pulse, billing itself as the privacy-respecting alternative to MySpace, promising users “very granular and powerful control on the privacy . . . of their personal information.”

A year later, Facebook launched a new surveillance tool called “Beacon,” which tracked users on sites all over the internet, not just Facebook. Facebook offered users an opt-out of this surveillance, but even when users clicked “No, thanks,” Facebook continued to spy on them.

Senior Facebook executives like Chamath Palihapitiya (then Facebook VP of marketing, today an A-list celebrity investor) lied shamelessly about this, falsely claiming to the New York Times that Facebook respected the preferences of users who opted out of surveillance.

Facebook’s user manipulation, deceptive conduct, and privacy invasions prompted an exodus of users — especially the young users that advertisers prized — from the site. Those users flocked to a new, innovative, privacy-respecting alternative called Instagram.

In 2012, Mark Zuckerberg sent his CFO a midnight email outlining his plan to buy Instagram so that he could retain control over the users who quit his service. Zuckerberg wrote:

One way of looking at this is that what we’re really buying is time. Even if some new competitors springs up, buying Instagram, Path, Foursquare, etc now will give us a year or more to integrate their dynamics before anyone can get close to their scale again. Within that time, if we incorporate the social mechanics they were using, those new products won’t get much traction since we’ll already have their mechanics deployed at scale.

This email surely came as no surprise to Facebook CFO David Ebersman. After all, Zuckerberg’s explicit philosophy, as stated in a now-notorious 2008 email, was:

“It is better to buy than compete.

Buying Instagram is best understood as part of a long pattern of Mark Zuckerberg coercing others into giving him power. From his days as a 19 year old designing a sexual-harassment-as-a-service website that exploited his female classmates to the Instagram acquisition, Zuckerberg — and thus Facebook’s — overwhelming ethos is “What’s mine is mine, and what’s yours is mine.”

With the Instagram acquisition Zuckerberg moved beyond thwarting the explicit privacy preferences of Facebook users into ignoring the privacy preferences of ex-Facebook users. Quitting Facebook for Instagram didn’t mean that Zuck would stop spying on you.

Wherever you went, Zuck would follow, and he would continue to lie about how you could expect to be treated. When Zuckerberg bought WhatsApp, he promised its users — and the EU Commission that oversaw the merger — that he wouldn’t spy on them. He lied.

By continuing to lock up ex-Facebook users on Instagram, Zuckerberg staved off the customary fast disintegration of social media sites. These sites grow thanks to “network effects” (people joined Facebook to hang out with the people who were already there, and then they became a reason for still more people to join), but network effects cut both ways. If you’re on a service because you value the company of the people who are already there, then when those people leave, it might trigger your own departure.

The social scientist danah boyd was embedded with MySpace during its rapid slide into oblivion, and she vividly describes this phenomenon:

With MySpace, I was trying to identify the point where I thought the site was going to unravel. When I started seeing the disappearance of emotionally sticky nodes, I reached out to members of the MySpace team to share my concerns and they told me that their numbers looked fine. Active uniques were high, the amount of time people spent on the site was continuing to grow, and new accounts were being created at a rate faster than accounts were being closed. I shook my head; I didn’t think that was enough. A few months later, the site started to unravel.

Facebook managed to corral its disloyal users by converting Instagram into an annex to its walled garden/prison camp. That gave the company a new lease on life, and cemented its structural importance to publishers of all kinds, who now had to pass through Facebook’s chokepoint to reach their readers.

Facebook is one of the companies that degraded the internet so that it consists of “five websites, each consisting of screenshots of text from the other four.” While these companies have each staked out exclusive territories and bolstered them with predatory acquisitions, unfair contracts, noncompete and most-favored nation deals, trade secrets, and technological lock-in, they are by no means satisfied with this arrangement.

The age of colonization meant that each failson of every European aristocratic family got to bud off his own dynastic fortune. That ended the centuries-old tradition of primogeniture, whereby only the eldest son would inherit and the others would have to join the priesthood or die on some doomed military adventure.

For three generations, these chinless princelings kept out of each other’s way: why fight some other posh boy over his slaves and plantations when there were “new worlds” to conquer and new people to enslave for your own sons’ fortunes?

But when the global supply of brown people to enslave, rape and murder ran out, these inbred noble gentlemen turned on one another, seeking to snatch away one another’s human chattel and stolen lands. Those skirmishes steadily gained in ferocity until erupting into World War I, where working class Europeans died in their millions to ensure that the toffs who ruled over them could continue to torment their class allies abroad.

Which brings me to the “pivot to video.”

In 2015, Facebook decided to break Google’s monopoly on video ads. Like Facebook, Google was incapable of creating a video service anyone wanted to use. Its foray into the sector, Google Video, never attained liftoff, stumbling along from its launch in 2005 until its ultimate demise in 2012.

But Google didn’t need to build a successful video service. It could simply buy one (after all, virtually every product Google has built in-house has failed — with the exception of a search-engine, a Hotmail clone and a creepy, surveillant browser — and nearly every successful product the company has launched was purchased from someone else).

Google bought YouTube in 2006, and used a mixture of self-preferencing, predatory pricing, coercive contracting terms and technical know-how to build it into the world’s most successful, most profitable video site.

In 2015, Facebook staged a raid on YouTube, seeking to capture some of Google monopoly ad revenue for itself. By then, Facebook’s own monopolistic conduct had given it a lock over publishers, who relied on the company to reach the audiences it had locked in.

Facebook sought to leverage this competitive advantage to force publishers to subsidize its video service rollout.

Facebook defrauded these publishers, falsely claiming that the unpopular, obscure videos that appeared on its site were actually runaway successes, drawing more views than the print articles the publishers specialized in producing. Facebook made grandiose claims about a profound shift in human behavior, as our text-based interactions were crowded out by this insatiable lust for videos.

Publishers were taken in by this lie and borrowed billions of dollars and sold equity to raise billions more, converting their newsrooms to video production factories that pumped out millions of videos in place of text articles.

Facebook was betting that if the publishers spent enough money on videos for its service, that users would start watching them.

Facebook was wrong.

Videos never caught on for Facebook. Publishers experienced a mass-extinction event, going bankrupt in droves, laying off hundreds of journalists. Facebook failed to erode YouTube’s monopoly dominance over video, but at least they didn’t have to spend their own money to try.

Sadly for the publishers that survived the pivot-to-video fraud, Facebook and Google were able to put their differences aside and went on to illegally collude to rig the ad market through a conspiracy they code-named Jedi Blue, which let them steal millions from publishers.

Honestly, it’s remarkable that after all this fraud, some publishers continue to insist that the problem with Facebook and Google is that they link to news articles and let their users discuss the news of the day (Earth to media barons: it’s only “news” if you’re allowed to talk about it, otherwise, it’s a secret).

Google and Facebook aren’t stealing newspapers’ content.

They’re stealing newspapers’ money.

In 2021, Mark Zuckerberg announced that he had discovered that internet users no longer wanted to talk to each other with text, nor with videos.

Rather, the internet’s billions were clamoring to interact with each other as legless, sexless, low-polygon cartoon characters in a high-surveillance walled garden he called “the metaverse.”

Zuckerberg renamed his company Meta and began a pivot-to-video-style media blitz, this one bent on convincing the world’s commercial firms, publishers, and software developers that they had a golden opportunity. The vast empty wasteland of the metaverse had billions of content-hungry users who were eager to strap bricks to their faces and hurl themselves into a literal science-fiction dystopia for the rest of their lives.

These users are every bit as imaginary as the content hungry viewers of the pivot-to-video. Even Meta’s own employees are totally indifferent to it. The metaverse strategy is every bit as transparent as the pivot-to-video strategy was.

Mark Zuckerberg wants to build another walled garden to lock in billions more people, so he can sell them to advertisers and other businesses, and then rip off everyone: users, advertisers, sellers, software developers.

If it fails, at least the majority of the pain will be felt by the suckers who bought Zuckerberg’s latest lie. The losses will be taken by public institutions, like the EU, who spent €387,000 on a “metaverse” presence that only six people showed up for. They will be felt by the pension funds who back gullible venture capitalists, like the ones who valued Decentraland at $1,300,000,000, despite the fact that it gets 38 daily active revenue-generating users.

The words are different, but this is the same tune Zuckerberg started warbling in 2003:

Zuck: Yeah so if you ever need info about anyone at Harvard

Zuck: Just ask.

Zuck: I have over 4,000 emails, pictures, addresses, SNS

[Redacted Friend’s Name]: What? How’d you manage that one?

Zuck: People just submitted it.

Zuck: I don’t know why.

Zuck: They “trust me”

Zuck: Dumb fucks.

Zuckerberg wants us to pay to build his metaverse. He’s made this pitch after repeatedly, significantly, unrepentantly lying to us. Over and over again, he lied to us. For decades, he lied to us.

If we trust him this time, we are truly “dumb fucks.”

Cory Doctorow (craphound.com) is a science fiction author, activist, and blogger. He has a podcast, a newsletter, a Twitter feed, a Mastodon feed, and a Tumblr feed. He was born in Canada, became a British citizen and now lives in Burbank, California. His latest nonfiction book is Chokepoint Capitalism (with Rebecca Giblin), a book about artistic labor market and excessive buyer power. His latest novel for adults is Attack Surface. His latest short story collection is Radicalized. His latest picture book is Poesy the Monster Slayer. His latest YA novel is Pirate Cinema. His latest graphic novel is In Real Life. His forthcoming books include Red Team Blues, a noir thriller about cryptocurrency, corruption and money-laundering (Tor, 2023); and The Lost Cause, a utopian post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation with white nationalist militias (Tor, 2023).

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