The internet is leaking

Inside the metaverse, everything is embarrassing and everywhere is nowhere

LISBON, Portugal — lol I just wanted to see what this would look like with a dateline.

On Tuesday, I sat in an auditorium at the Web Summit and watched one-man The Thick of It episode and Vice‑President for Global Affairs and Communications for Meta (née Facebook) Nick Clegg get wheeled out onto the stage inside a video monitor. Clegg, who was calling in remotely from what appeared to be his home office, stuttered and stammered — and buffered — through a series of canned answers to questions from Financial Times news editor Matthew Garrahan. At one point, as Clegg tried to actually define the "metaverse," he looked down on what appeared to be a written press release as his feed froze. There he was, frozen in cyberspace, desperately searching for a way to explain why the future of technology is being somewhere, but requiring his company to be present somewhere else. Also, at multiple points, he came very close to accidentally calling Meta, "Facebook".

Hours later, during a break from panels, I opened my phone and saw photos and videos of hundreds of QAnon supporters gathered in Dallas, Texas. Like Clegg, half a world away, but now in front of me. The crowd there was waiting for their own physical manifestation of digital content. They believed that John F. Kennedy Jr., who they think is secretly still alive, would reveal himself as Trump's running mate for 2024, a culmination of a shitpost someone once wrote on 8chan. Obviously, Kennedy didn't show because he's been dead for 22 years.

And then, later, on Tuesday night, I sat and had a beer at a rooftop bar in the Martim Moniz neighborhood of Lisbon. It lightly drizzled as I listened to a British guy ask the bartender if he had the right USB cord required to charge his vape. He did and was declared “an absolute legend” for it. I opened my phone and idly started scrolling through Twitter. Outside of the US, my carrier reduces my speed to 2G. It's enough to load tweets with text and send my own, but not much more. It effectively puts me in the world of free basics, the program that Mark Zuckerberg launched in 2013 to colonize and terrorize the global south, with promises of just enough free data to consume and react, but not enough to leave his walled garden.

On my timeline was a tweet from Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. He, too, was promising new ways to be one place, but, with the help of his company, be somewhere else at the same time. "The metaverse is here, and it’s not only transforming how we see the world but how we participate in it — from the factory floor to the meeting room. Take a look," it read. After about 45 seconds, the video loaded. In it, blobby legless business-casual Animal Crossing characters presented powerpoints and interacted on video calls. My first thought was, as always with this stuff, “they probably don’t give you legs so you can’t have genitals.” I started to get a very specific kind of dull ache in the back of my head.

I scrolled some more before firing off a few snarky tweets and then a few more. Angrier ones this time. Then I realized I had probably been too mean to a USA Today reporter for debunking whether or not there was a Satanic presence hidden in coronavirus vaccines and quickly deleted my tweets. At the same time, even with the time difference, the Virginia governor's race was already starting to look very not good and "critical race theory" was beginning to trend. I shut off Twitter and ordered another drink.

Then, this morning, I opened it again to see the words "YOU LOSE" trending and started to get the same dull ache as the night before. That's when I noticed that Twitter had, without telling me, put me in an A/B test group and given me a new feature where my main timeline was no longer chronological, as I usually have it. Now, instead, it defaults to "top tweets" from people I follow and people they follow. Which may explain the dull ache and cyberbullying. That’s just how your brain works within an algorithm.

Walking through the Web Summit’s pavilions this week has been both revelatory and overwhelming. I haven’t been around this many people at once in almost two years. I don’t know how to modulate my emotions when I talk anymore. I’m used to smiling with my eyes and avoiding groups of people. The pandemic has been transformative for the startup world, as well. It too seems to be struggling with how humanity fits into our new fully-online world.

The hundreds of startups here, from all around the world, are all promising “modern solutions for modern challenges,” which means, whether or not they’re A.I. companies, almost all of them, at some level, are now A.I. companies. Algorithms for music rights, A.I. for sorting through geographic data, machine learning for clothing store inventories. Software as a service as a service as a platform on top of a platform on top of machine learning. While waiting for coffee, I watched two women hug a little butler robot, who then, via his touchscreen chest, asked them to rate how his hug was, which, will no doubt, help the little butler robot learn how to hug better.

At the start of the week, former product manager for Facebook’s civic integrity department and current whistleblower Frances Haugen had the decency to show up to the conference in person. Next week, Haugen will meet with European parliament, but during her talk here in Lisbon, she made headlines for reluctantly and diplomatically, eventually, saying, yes, she thinks that Mark Zuckerberg should step down. She also said that one of the main reasons she felt compelled to leak thousands of internal documents from the company was specifically because of what she saw Facebook products doing to users in India. Except, reporters in countries like India are still largely left out of the consortium of journalists who currently have access to Haugen’s leak.

Which is why, perhaps as a way to get ahead of that, Libby Liu, the CEO of Whistleblower Aid, who is advising Haugen, explained on stage during the panel, that journalists were brought into the consortium as the leaks were reported to different governments to make sure everything was done legally. Makes sense. I guess you can’t really work with governments in countries like India, Brazil, the Philippines, or even newly Brexited Britain anymore because, in effect, Facebook already won there. An Italian tech writer I spoke to here this week said she recently DM’d an American reporter in the consortium and is hoping that will help her become the first journalist in her country to get access to the leaks.

This idea — of Facebook, and Silicon Valley as a whole, representing a new competing system to democracy — was echoed by early Facebook investor and current outspoken anti-Facebook activist Roger McNamee in another talk here this week. He said that he views the “efficiency culture” at the heart of the tech industry as being fundamentally incompatible with “democracy and self-determination,” which, according to McNamee are inherently slow and inefficient. You can’t reason or negotiate with machines. The little robot butler will ask you how his hugs are, but there’s no real reason for him to ask you if you actually feel like being hugged right now.

When Facebook is presented as a competing system of governance, it’s hard not to see the metaverse as something more sinister than just a fun genital-free way to work remotely 24 hours a day for a non-unionized Slack server full of LinkedIn-brained middle managers. Coming off the back of what Haugen and the Facebook consortium continue to reveal about what Facebook was doing to us over the years, the metaverse, instead, looks like a phase two.

Like an alien race coming to terraform the earth and turn us into meat batteries, first, they came for our friends and families, then our schools, then our town halls and libraries and marketplaces, and then our politicians. They saved and studied billions of our faces and experimented our children and our parents and figured out exactly how deeply they could worm their way into how we interact with each other. Now that they’ve reached the limitations of both our current technology and our laws, they decided it was time for an upgrade. They even announced this week they’ll stop scanning our faces. Of course, they’re keeping the data.

It’s not Facebook’s fault, though, right? Democracy and self-determination, as McNamee said, aren’t efficient. And, increasingly, it seems like the big lesson from the pandemic for people like Zuckerberg is that neither are things like place and time. Why fly to Lisbon when you can just appear on a screen there from the safety of your living room? Why be anywhere, when you can just be everywhere?

But if this is a phase two of something, what will the metaverse mean for the countries that have already had their institutions eroded by Facebook? The conquered regions of phase one. Well, perhaps one glimpse of the near-future can be found in the early metaverse project Axie Infinity, a game which combines Pokémon-style monster collection with NFTs. It has actually already become a massive money maker in the global south. Workers in countries ravaged by Facebook like the Philippines can now make thousands of dollars a month grinding away on Axie Infinity, in exchange for crypto tokens they can trade for real money. So far, Facebook’s crypto plans have been halted, but for how long? Is that what awaits us after Facebook radicalization topples our governments and replaces our world leaders with reality TV stars and men who think vaccines turn you into crocodiles? Is Meta now just announcing life rafts for the flood they caused? And are those life rafts just a virtual existence inside our homes, making and selling inherently worthless digital goods in exchange for an illusion that we can be everywhere, while never really being anywhere?

I thought if anyone would have an idea of what living inside Facebook’s sphere of influence was like, it would be Nuseir Yassin, or as he’s better known, Nas Daily. Yassin is easily the most famous homegrown Facebook creator not currently filming themselves eating out of a toilet bowl. He has 20 million followers and when I walked into his press conference at the Web Summit this week, the 29-year-old Israeli video creator was gleefully telling the audience that, very soon, the radio will go extinct because everyone will be watching streaming videos in their self-driving Teslas. Then he told all the journalists in the room to quit their jobs and go independent. “Sky News is the past,” he said. Fair enough, I was always more of a Channel 4 stan anyways.

I asked Yassin if he had any thoughts about Facebook’s algorithmic experiments that were revealed in the Facebook Papers. “This whole idea of ‘Facebook Papers,’ honestly, I feel it’s just journalists wanting to take advantage of Facebook and just like crap on it as much as possible,” he fired back. “I've worked with Facebook a lot. I think these are the smartest humans on planet Earth. And I trust them to fix society. I don't trust any government to fix society. I trust them to fix society.”

He then reiterated that Sky News will fail as an institution.

As I see it, there are two possibilities here and, while they seem to be at odds with each other, it’s possible they both end up being true. The first possibility is that all of this metaverse nonsense is a desperate death gasp from an irrelevant and bloated company on its way out. Meta was forced into this pivot by Frances Haugen’s leaks and this is the beginning of the end for them. The other possibility is that this will work. Zuckerberg will overlay our current world with a new virtual one — that he owns — which will allow his algorithms to further embed themselves into the way we talk, dress, eat, and socialize. Our lives will become an endless and chaotic montage of viral flash mobs and micro-trends, while we’re surveilled by our wearables and screens and projectors. But our robot butlers will be very smart.

And both could be true. Meta could be the end. It could be the moment the company finally overextends itself and implodes, finally joining Myspace and Friendster in platform hell. And while their executives continue to zoom into tech conferences to semi-irl Gen X boomerpost about VR, they could also actually do what they’re trying to do. They could throw enough money and resources as this vague idea of the metaverse that something sticks. The internet is already leaking out of our screens. Everything is somewhere else and also nowhere and also everywhere and also right in front of you and the dull ache in the back of your head is always just a few taps away. It’s not hard to imagine that pretty soon, you won’t have to tap anything to feel it.

About an hour before this newsletter hit your inbox today, Facebo— sorry, I mean, Meta’s chief product officer, Chris Cox, presented on a panel called “Welcome To The Metaverse”. After Clegg’s tribute to the days of trying to watch a video mid-Kazaa download earlier in the week, I wondered if Cox would show in person and, if he did stream in, would the lag be as bad as it was with Clegg.

Cox’s buffering was so bad and lag time was so awkward that interviewer Nicholas Carlson, the global editor-in-chief of Insider, actually had to address it, quipping that even if his picture froze, as long as the audio still worked, he’d try to keep going. It’s also important to point out this seemed to be a Facebook problem. Other remote presentations at the Web Summit have been fine. I mean, any Twitch streamer or South Korean Starcraft player could have told them about the issues with trying to stream 4k video internationally. But while Cox was freezing up while trying to talk about integrity or whatever, something else happened.

The upper rows of the auditorium during Cox’s panel were full of students. After Cox’s second completely canned response — he was trying to explain that standup comedy is a perfect fit for Facebook’s Horizons (lol sorry but can you imagine anything more grim than performing standup for a Facebook executive in VR?) — the students clearly ran out of patience. They all took out their phone lights and started flashing them at Cox on the screen while talking loudly enough that I saw reporters in the press section struggle to hear what was going on on stage.

Cox would have been able to notice this and, maybe at the very least, stopped painfully describing how fun his weird Club Penguin conference call app is, but he didn’t know it was happening. Because he was remote, he couldn’t actually see the crowd. He wasn’t in the room and streaming video could not replace that. Eventually, after too much lag awkwardness, Carlson had to tell him that Facebook should look into a better streaming set-up. I’m not sure I could have come up with a better metaphor for where Meta is as a company — or the culture of people who want the metaverse right now — than watching an exasperated middle-aged tech executive have awkward lag problems with his home office set-up while he was obliviously mocked by teenagers.

Also, don’t worry, I’m not going to tease you like that. Here’s the robot butler:


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