I’m Out On Meta

“Someone has to tell me why we keep allowing social media and our very lives as social creatures to be dictated by the most socially awkward person in history.” — Bill Maher

I have the same nagging question. The self-celebrating visionary Mark Zuckerberg continues to express that he knows something about building human ties that the rest of us can learn from his business mission. I see scant evidence that Zuck can guide us anywhere better than where we are at the moment or have been. There is near zero chance that he is going to stop talking because his determined point of view is driven by a conflicted agenda where he benefits most. I am done listening.

I recently learned a new acronym: IRL. You’re probably ahead of me, but it means In Real Life. That would be the opposite of what we bucket today under the category of virtual. Virtual would be something other than sharing the same physical space. Zoom is virtual. Social media is virtual. Running around in a 3D online game space is virtual. Meta is virtual.

If you already know this, forgive me for catching up late. Here’s something that might irritate you even more: I don’t like Meta. Agreed, I don’t like the company now known as Meta, but I really don’t like the idea of meta.

Said better, if I have a choice to interact with you in person—In Real Life—unless we’ve already established an unrepairable dislike for each other, I would prefer to interact with you in shared physical space over shared electronic space. I believe we get more done in person more quickly. I believe there are fewer errors in interpretation when we are together in person. I believe our relationship has a better chance to improve in person. I believe our manners are better in person.

That doesn’t mean I don’t see a role for virtual, I just prefer IRL. Virtual has proven more accessible, often more practical, certainly more economic. The compromise is that virtual leans toward purely transactional exchange, algorithmic efficiency often at the expense of building emotional intelligence. There’s the rub—a lot can get lost when we eliminate nuance from contact.

Zuck probably doesn’t agree. I don’t think the renaming of Facebook to Meta is simply a PR stunt to get us to see past the failings of the platform called Facebook. I think he saw the early experiment called Second Life as an end, not a means. He lives better in the virtual. He belongs in the virtual. He wants us to join him in the virtual. He can be King of All Data in the virtual.

Count me out.

My sense is much of the unbearable divisiveness we are experiencing results from too many of us coming to the conclusion that virtual, or meta, is a substitute for IRL. I’ll accept virtual as an adjunct to IRL—an extension, enhancement, or convenience to supplement IRL. I also think we need to relearn IRL, and quickly, because human contact is a big part of what makes us human. Creating a machine interface between us does not always extract our best selves.

Regretfully, I am a hypocrite on this. I worked with an innovative team at Disney over a decade ago that created ToonTown Online, the first massively multiplayer universe for kids and families, complete with third-party vetted built-in safety. We never intended this virtual playground to be a substitute for recess or a replacement for after-school outdoor activity. It was meant as an alternative for when that playground wasn’t available, particularly for children dependent on parents for logistics.

I don’t think alternative or supplement is what Zuck has in mind. I think primary platform is what he has in mind, as addictive as Facebook, but even more isolating. We will have less agency in Meta. We will have less freedom. We will behave less well.

Zuck will have more authority. Zuck will have more control over directing our actions. Zuck will revel in even less oversight. Zuck will make more money.

Dystopian fiction usually takes us on a gradual journey into descent. In well-told stories, it doesn’t happen in an instant. We are drawn in slowly. Then we realize we have been had and are trapped. Kind of like Facebook.

I see a revolt on the horizon. It won’t look like January 6. It will be the alternative to getting “Zucked” in. Slowly we will grow tired of Facebook. Meta will fail, because IRL is better.

Several years ago during another public flare-up, I posed this question: Is Facebook the Next AOL? Then as now, I wondered if the voracious beast would devolve into oblivion. Why does that destiny today seem even more possible? Because Meta is fundamentally flawed. It advances a business agenda over a human objective. It presumes addiction is a higher-order force than graciously serving customer needs.

Zuck early on said the purpose of Facebook was to make the world more open and connected. He lied. How do I know that? Because he walked away from that proclamation the same way that Google walked away from don’t be evil. It was too hard to be consistent and authentic. Eliminating the binding pretension made it way easier to generate exponentially more cash.

The purpose of Facebook is to collect vast amounts of personal data and leverage it for advertising value. I’m actually okay with that. It’s a true and understandable business objective. We can resist it. We will resist it.

The purpose of Meta is to head-fake us from the world we need to improve to an alternate reality we can never make better than the one we can experience IRL. Even John Carmack, the technical genius behind Oculus, knows the vast details behind building a metaverse are well beyond the hype of advocating for its imminent commercial deployment.

Here’s a thought, Mr. Meta: Fix some of the nasty problems you’ve already created moving fast and breaking things before you dump another pile of poorly considered conflict on us.

Lest you be readying to drop the Luddite card on me, please know that I remain wildly optimistic about the application of virtual reality and augmented reality to medical and other scientific research. I also bear no grudge toward the gaming community, which gave birth to my career, as long as it approaches immersive gaming in a healthy balance with healthy living.

My gripe is with Zuck and anyone else advocating isolating technologies. Escape is not a viable substitute for learning to develop coping mechanisms that lead to mastery of the highly demanding but uniquely rewarding anything-but-meta real world.

Let’s hear a cheer for evolving our delicate mastery of IRL.

Avoidance of human beings in person is not a strategy for learning how to navigate the human landscape, which is created in a natural state to be physical first, virtual as an adjunct and counterpoint. A little social media now and again probably won’t ruin our lives, everything in moderation. Digital sharing can have its place when it defies obsession. I suggested a better rebranding of Facebook might have been Happy Birthday Central. That would celebrate its finest function.

Focus on the basics as we revisit each other IRL: being polite, making eye contact, actually laughing when something is funny rather than typing LOL. Go outside for walks, and when it’s safe to be maskless, smile at passersby. Feel the sun and the rain on your biological skin and be thankful for the gift of our senses.

We truly are a unique blend of the physical, psychological, and dare I say, spiritual. Productive communities are established in tangible places before they become replicated models. There remains evidence to suggest we can be better together than separate. It takes work to keep producing this evidence, but my experience is that removing an LED screen between us offers a dimension of clarity that is otherwise less satisfying and cannot be replicated.

When we let Zuck know we are out on Meta and all-in on true human connections, the real agenda of living with advanced technology can continue. As I have written so many times, technology is advancing much more quickly than our ability to make sense of it. This is not a secret. It’s why we feel anxiety. It’s why we don’t like Mark Zuckerberg when his answers to the hardest questions are unsatisfactory. His vision will not be our vision.

Bill Maher summarized his point of view in his recent ‘New Rules’ segment on Real Time succinctly: “The more time you spend in the virtual world, the more you suck at engaging in the real world.”

Given too many of my own interactions in the pandemic recovering world, I find that awfully and unfortunately compelling.

We won’t get fooled again.


Photo: Pixabay


More on Social Commerce

Simple Definition of Social Commerce
by Paul Marsden
Social Commerce Today, November 17, 2009

Social Commerce is Much More than a Buzzword

However you want to define it, shopping is social. The network’s the thing. Inspire a dialogue, remove all barriers to exchange, and the community will do most of the heavy lifting. If it’s not interactive, it’s a soap box (pun intended), a very tough way to sell.

Social Commerce is Real

Prepare for Social Commerce
by Dianna Dilworth
DM News, December 29, 2006

The Mass is No More

Nothing is more powerful in moving someone from intension to transaction than the opinions and recommendations of your own community. What our friends and family say and think means an order of magnitude more than any paid placement. You just can’t buy this kind of endorsement, only inspire it.

Advertising Has To Be More Than A Numbers Game

BrandweekOld Wisdom for New Media
by Ken Goldstein
Brandweek, May 5, 2008

WHILE updating my profile on a certain social-networking site recently, I received a tower ad for a brand of acne medication. Truth be told, I was flattered. I mean, the last time I really had to worry about my skin breaking out was…

Well, let’s just say it was a while ago.

So, to the makers of the nifty benzoyl peroxide cream, thanks.  And thanks, too, for getting me thinking.  Because when it comes to the integration of technology, programming and advertising, this complex machinery clearly broke down in my case.  Nobody doubts that social networks and video-distribution sites are critical marketing tools—they’ve got tens of millions of users, nearly half of whom are over 35 and well past the zit zone—but many of them have yet to target effectively.  They still don’t allow advertisers to deliver relevant content that creates emotional resonance.

Is that a shortcoming?  Yes.  Does it surprise me?  No.  The lag time between the invention of a technology and the perfection of its market applications is well documented.  For example, radio technology emerged as early as 1895, but the first on-air commercial didn’t bounce off the ionosphere until 1922 (it was a spokesman for New York City’s Queensboro Corp. lauding new cooperative apartments in a lush, far-off paradise called Queens).  America had an early version of television back in 1927, but nobody saw a TV spot until 1941, when Bulova bought a 20-second ad to open a Dodgers-Phillies game.

Even after the development of on-air advertising, it took still longer for our marketing ancestors to awaken to specific audience targeting—specifically, using women in the TV studio to speak to women at home in the suburbs.  Betty Furness was advertising’s first celebrity endorser, delivering her inaugural pitch for Westinghouse appliances in 1949.  Procter & Gamble created the daytime TV serial drama in 1950 to sell cleaning products to women. Its series (called The First Hundred Years) lasted only two seasons; the name it coined—soap opera—lives on.

And so, much as it took early sponsors time to realize their era’s new media potential; today’s marketers are traveling the same learning curve.  In our digital age, advertising continues to focus on reach, efficiency and relevance—but Web-based advertising relies disproportionately on unimaginative spot and text ads that have changed little since Hotwire introduced banner ads in 1994.

Indeed, marketers have begun to recognize that ads on social networking sites yield click-through rates as low as 4 in 10,000, while the click-through rate for all ads is 20 in 10,000.  When social-networking sites have a 5-to-1 disparity in click-through, it’s clearly time to better capitalize on today’s digital innovations.

The basic truth revealed by the Queensboro co-op apartment radio spot still applies.  When advertising is part of the story (when you see the Lipstick Jungle ad on iVillage.com or a Ross-Simons promotion within a “Cart Me Away” game on my company’s site, shop.com) it defines the difference between advertising that people embrace and advertising people avoid.  Focused Web sites with a loyal audience controlling discretionary dollars still make the most efficient media buys when marketing content is entertaining rather than intrusive.  The cable TV industry taught the networks a great lesson on this point; my sense is digital media are on the verge of learning similar lessons.

Yes, technology can help an advertiser reach the rich audience, but whether you’re selling luxury real estate or acne cream, it’s still the audience—its attention span and the connections it makes with content—that matters most.  I like online social networks, but just because they pull down big numbers doesn’t mean they can pull off a sale.  Getting great products in front of great customers is both art and science; let’s embrace the art and science (and mostly the customers) and worry less about so-called “total media solutions” from pundits who have never made a sales call.  Maybe then we can have some fun really inventing that fabled digital media future.

PostScript for CIR blog post:

Targeting Is Only Part of the Solution

The fun of media is that it is equal parts art and science.  The challenge of media is whichever of those two sides of the brain is not your strong suit.  That’s why it takes a (small) village to get it right, no one has the whole story, but without the whole story, it usually is not a very good story.

History has a way of solving these problems, but it takes time, and it takes casualties.  Just because you can think it up and do it doesn’t mean it will work; but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try everything and respond to the feedback you get—quickly, honestly, and passionately.

Original Article Republished in China