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


Toons, Love, and Letting Go

Earlier this month the curtain finally fell on Toontown Online.  I am guessing that 90% of the people who read this post will have no idea what that is, was, or means.  I won’t spend a lot of time telling you what it is or was, but I do want to share a few words about what it means.

TTO End of the WorldToontown was a massively multiplayer online role-playing game, an MMORPG, if you can believe such an acronym exists.  It is more commonly referred to as an online world, or a virtual playground, where participants create a character, or avatar, that represents them among tens of thousands of others at any given time, in what is affectionately known as cyberspace, the intersection of computer networks, or the Cloud.  The most famous and successful MMORPG of all time is undoubtedly World of Warcraft, which was created ages ago by Blizzard Entertainment and has produced immense wealth for those behind it.  Toontown is kind of like the quirky second cousin of World of Warcraft, created by huge fans of WOW initially at Disney Imagineering R&D, seeking a key point of differentiation — Toontown was the first MMORPG for kids and families.  Yes, that’s right, kids and families.  It came from Disney, after all, where family entertainment is the brand promise.

Aside from appealing to a different demographic audience, Toontown accomplished a few other significant milestones.  For one, it lasted commercially over a decade, if not putting it in the wealth stamping mode of World of Warcraft, certainly getting it into the rare window of time warp triumph that few digital games enjoy.  It was certainly the longest living bit of software that I ever helped see the light of day, by an order of magnitude.  We started working on it in 1999, launched the free public beta at Disney Online in the Fall of 2002, and went live in full subscription model in mid-2003.  Earlier this year, Toontown Online celebrated a milestone of ten years active that very few libraries of compiled code ever have the occasion to note.

If you have never played an MMORPG or have no idea what the gameplay in Toontown Online encompassed, you can easily learn that by doing a few web searches or scanning the Toontown entry in Wikipedia.  Now that Toontown Online is over, I want to talk less about its being, and more about its resonance.  It was a turning point for those who worked on it in several capacities — proof that the Disney brand and Walt’s vision could be migrated to a new platform of which Walt never dreamed.  It galvanized a team to emerge from the DotBomb bubble years through a process of creative destruction and reinvention.  It bonded its developers to its customers in a true paradigm shift that redefined for all involved the notion of “community.”  I remember approving a job requisition for a position called “Community Manager,” and I swear I stared at the page for an hour wondering what that meant, whether we really needed one, and whether any person was superhuman enough to tackle such a role.  The truth was, we were all Community Managers, and residents, and participants, and young at heart immersives who knew something had changed.  We bonded with our customers, and we bonded with each other, and that bond proved to be something that will last in perpetuity.

World class work is contagious.  High performance teams willingly tackle shared dreams.  Achieving the improbable is a permanent bonding agent.  Copy and paste that in your signature file.

The bond of being part of doing something that hasn’t been done before with a team of impossibly talented individuals with whom you are unlikely to ever work again is both powerful and intangible.  The odds against Toontown lasting a year let alone a decade were incalculable.  It was so hard to describe the concept to people both inside and outside the company that building a consensus and maintaining funding was entirely improbable.  Yet because history told us Walt had faced the same struggle and challenge opening a branded family theme park — Walt’s Folly, as it was known — we just stuck to it and got it done.  We knew if we could get people to sample it — try it, touch it, be in it, share it — it would slowly catch on.  It did, like the Little Engine that Could, and those silly little Toon characters got stuck in our minds and our hearts.  We played in that world with each other, kids and adults, employees and customers, everyone an equal, everyone just looking for gags and Cogs to take down.

Years into it, Thomas Friedman wrote a critically important book called The World is Flat, but those of us making and playing Toontown already knew that.  The hierarchy had inverted, unrestricted except by carefully constructed parental controls, global in reach and appeal.  The Toons were in charge of this world, not us.  Our job was to be good stewards of the world, not run it, only to tend the expansive lands.  Yep, it was an online theme park that belonged to everyone there.  It was a community, a true virtual community, almost perfectly safe because the community kept it that way, alive and vital 24x7x365.  We discovered it then, and we feel it now.  The game might be gone, but our sense of belonging, no chance that can be dipped in solvents.  Belonging is eternal.

Therein lies the truest lesson of Toontown for me, a lesson I learned my very first years in the software business, years in which I rode the unruly swings of success and failure all at once.  Astonishingly few projects in media succeed commercially or critically, and even fewer achieve both, but the ones that do make up for all the ones that don’t, both financially and in life satisfaction.  An extraordinarily wise mentor taught me at the outset of my journey this simple but enduring lesson, that if I stayed in this racket and wanted a career instead of a job, I needed to learn and embrace the mantra that projects come and go, but it is the people with whom you work  you will remember way more than the projects.  He explained that anyone looking back on a creative career when it comes to an end — and they all do at some point because we are humans, not T0ons — is that a truly successful career will be built on the back of about a half-dozen successes you could never predict, mixed in with a landfill of failures.

The takeaway was that it would always be easy to forget projects magnificent and awful, but the people with whom you shared those projects could rise to the level of unforgettable if you made that a focus.  If process was as important as outcome — more important than outcome because it is the only path to sustainable outcome — then you might forget the rotten days, the missed milestones, the modules that wouldn’t compile, the costly customer service calls, all that junk — but the joyous memories of the people would stay with you.  The people were the gift then, and they would remain so forever.

The incomparably talented people who built and nurtured Toontown were many of the same people with whom I shared any number of initiatives that didn’t go right.  It would be impossible to acknowledge and commend all of them here, and to pick just a few would inevitably be read wrong by the many.  The ten-year run of Toontown didn’t make them good, they were good already and they are good still.  All of us shared this tiny bit of magic, and now like most forms of media it joins the destiny of the ephemeral.  Our bond with each other is unbreakable , and our bond with that community is impenetrable.  The memories of the cast endure, the value of the bond beyond price, the stories of each other ours forever.  We are a little geeky, a little playful, a little different, and a little older.  We are forever Toons.

Toons of the World Unite.