Parental Panic to Metaverse Monopoly

FAANG will co-opt scared parents in its strategy to dominate virtual reality.

The Threat

Recently, an article appeared in my FAANG-curated news feed warning of VR’s dangers to children. There are solid points in the article - a gaming/social platform with no parental controls risks exposing children to harmful content. Virtual reality platforms are becoming more popular and it is likely that young people will use them most.

But what stood out to me was a claim from a FAANG spokesperson, effectively saying that while Meta can police its own platform, it has no control over users of other platforms.

At face value, this is a reasonable claim. But it helps to view this claim through the lens of “what’s in it for the shareholders?”

The Solution…

FAANG will use this threat of harm to children as one part of its strategy to create a legal monopoly on its metaverse. It will claim that it needs total control of the platform in order to prevent predators from harming children.

This control may come in the form of proprietary protocols or requiring users to use their FAANG accounts to access any part of “the” metaverse, so that FAANG controls the advertising streams.

…But Not Really

Both ideas - that it needs control, and that it will prevent harm - are false.

First, FAANG has no incentive to reduce harm unless it benefits shareholder value. It regularly its users to harmful content, whether by experimenting on unwitting users, showing unhealthy content to at-risk individuals, or simply as part of its “targeted advertising” strategy, which psychological manipulation by definition. This is not to say that FAANG set out to be evil as its primary objective. It’s simply a natural consequence of being driven entirely by the goal of maximizing shareholder value.

Second, even if FAANG had an incentive to protect its users (e.g. they start to associate their brand with the concept of “good mental health”), there is no reason to believe that having control of this platform will enable them to protect its users from harm.

Even totalitarian governments have a hard time with censorship. But on a platform which revolves around human-to-human communication, censorship is basically impossible, because humans are very good at circumventing the limitations of systems. For example, banning certain words or phrases just encourages threat actors to come up with new words or phrases which convey the same meaning as the banned ones.

Taken to an extreme, you have Orwellian Newspeak. But at more moderate levels of censorship, people will be “just creative enough” to circumvent the filters, delivering their harmful speech in the form of memes or slang if necessary.

Why Scare Quotes Around “the” Metaverse?

First, there is no “the” metaverse. Instead, there is an unbounded number of platforms, each of which is merely “a” metaverse among many.

FAANG’s goal seems to be to recreate the Neal Stephenson’s vision from the novel Snow Crash (which is a surprisingly relevant book for late 2021, for multiple reasons). In this book, “The Metaverse” is a single virtual reality environment with holographic avatars, and (most importantly) prime advertising space to the wealthiest customers.

But while a single metaverse makes for a good novel, there’s no reason to expect it to unfold that way in reality. Currently, many companies are trying to add users to their own metaverses. Some started as gaming platforms, such as Roblox and Minecraft. Others are riding the crypto/NFT hype wave.

Stay Tuned

If these predictions are correct, expect to see legislators lobbying to give control of “the” metaverse to FAANG-sized companies. Large companies have the most to gain from government regulation, because it raises the barrier to entry for their smaller competitors. They are still kicking themselves over the fact that the internet is not totally controlled by only a handful of large companies, and hope to fix this issue by making Web3 and The MetaverseTM the opposite of its decentralized marketing.