Bill Bennett

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Gartner falls for metaverse hype

An ill-considered press release from Gartner gushes that one person in four will spend at least an hour a day in the metaverse by 2026.

Facebook started talking about the metaverse to distract us from the toxicity surrounding its brand.

Last year it changed the parent company’s name to Meta to further distance the brand from its recent past.

Gartner draws on its deep pool of gobbledegook to provide its own definition of a metaverse:

“…a collective virtual shared space, created by the convergence of virtually enhanced physical and digital reality. It is persistent, providing enhanced immersive experiences, as well as device independent and accessible through any type of device, from tablets to head-mounted displays.

Enhance this…

You know you’re in trouble when you see the word ‘enhanced’. It is the technology charlatan’s go-to word. It can mean anything, but in general it is use as a fancy way of saying “a little better”.

Gartner used it twice in the space of two sentences.

Falling for this kind of nonsense is curious given Gartner invented the technology hype cycle.

And more so when you realise how unimpressed Facebook investors are.

We’ve seen similar digital-world projects in the past.

Today’s metaverse

Today’s computers are more powerful and there is more data network bandwidth. Yet otherwise there’s little in Facebook’s plan that you wouldn’t have found in, say, Second Life.

That may change.

Let’s take the metaverse shown in Mark Zuckerberg’s video at face value. It’s vague, but it is the nearest thing we have to work with.

If we accept Facebook’s video, Gartner’s press release is silly.

First, at the time Gartner wrote the press release in February 2022, Meta did not have a working metaverse.

Rudimentary metaverses

You can find a rudimentary metaverse in a handful of games. Meta isn’t the only big tech firm pouring billions into metaverse development.

Something will emerge. But the virtual world that features in Zuckerberg’s video does not exist. Tech firms can’t conjure it out of thin air.

The hardware and software needed to support that vision are not ready yet. It’s possible that will change in time for Gartner’s 2026 forecast.

Rolling new kit out to one quarter of the world’s population won’t happen overnight. Metaverse companies would need to make and sell two billion headsets.

Perspective

Let’s look at comparative technologies to put the numbers in perspective.

It took 25 years for a quarter of the world’s population to get a mobile phone.

There are around 60 million current generation video games consoles in use.

About one in four people, that number again, use Facebook, the social media website. It took years to build that audience.

Let’s say metaverse companies get a working system out of the door in two years. It’s unlikely they’ll have 25 percent of the world onboard in another two years.

And this is if we make the heroic assumption that everyone wants a metaverse. They may not. Virtual reality didn’t take off in the first three attempts. The metaverse shares a lot of characteristics with VR.

Facebook’s biggest test

Facebook looked unstoppable. Then a series of home truths caught up with the tech giant. Now it faces its biggest test.

At one point last week Meta’s share price was down more than 25 percent. The company formerly known as Facebook lost US$240 billion from its market value after publishing its latest results.

Since then it has drifted lower and is down by almost a third on this time a month ago.

Last week’s fall was the biggest single day market value drop in business history. The event saw the Nasdaq index drop two percent.

Not Facebook’s first stumble

We’ve seen Facebook stumble before. This is different.

Growth has slowed. The core product looks jaded. Costs are spinning out of control.

Meta tells an unconvincing story about where it wants to go with the metaverse.

The company is not about to collapse or go away, but it will change. You may not recognise what it becomes.

Competition strikes at Meta’s core

Facebook looked unstoppable. It soaked up a huge slice of the world’s advertising spend, roped off a significant segment of the available online destinations and altered the course of elections.

In comparison Meta looks vulnerable. It faces intense competition on two fronts. The regulatory challenges continue to mount and the leadership does not appear to on top of matters.

Apple’s app-tracking transparency feature was always going to hurt Facebook. If anything, its effect was more pronounced than analysts expected.

Apple’s privacy move

When iOS 14.5 was released last year, Apple gave iPhone users more control over the private information companies like Facebook could track.

To no-one’s suprise, many iPhone users chose not to give consent. As many as three in four have cut off Facebook’s snooping. That undermines Facebook’s pitch to advertisers.

That cost Meta US$10 billion in lost advertising revenue. At 8.5 percent, the figure is getting on for a tenth of Facebook’s annual revenue. More important, it is one quarter of annual profit.

This time it is different

On its own this would be a blip for Facebook. The business has faced similar threats and recovered. However, while this is going on over here, a second front has opened over there. TikTok is eating Facebook’s lunch with young adults.

Increasingly Facebook is the place for old people. Their children and grandchildren prefer the Chinese-owned TikTok app. It now has more than a billion users.

TikTok poses an unusual threat. Because it features short video clips, it sucks up even more attention than Facebook. Facebook’s surveillance capitalism model depends on how much user attention it can grab. TikTok does a better job of this.

You may remember Donald Trump attempting to ban TikTok. When he was president he claimed it was a security threat. The biggest threat it poses is to Facebook.

Saturation

A third problem is falling user numbers. For the first time the number of daily users on Facebook has fallen.

It’s possible this is temporary. But an equally likely interpretation is that Facebook is losing the allure it once had.

When a product like Facebook is growing, there’s a network effect. As more people climb onboard there are more reasons for others to join. If this goes into reverse, there could be a downward spiral.

You may choose to quit Facebook if the friends you value the most are no longer there.

Meta- washing the toxicity

Part of the reason for changing from Facebook to Meta was to wash away the toxicity associate with the brand. But that’s not the only reason.

Facebook, or Meta, needs to find a path from the immediate and longer term problems it faces.

A switch to being the metaverse company may not be the right strategy, but it is a strategy. It has billions it can throw at research and development. The company plans to invest US$10 billion a year in the metaverse. There are huge resources of smart people, patents and other intellectual property.

Throw enough of these ingredients about and something can emerge. It can come from left field. The Apple Mac emerged from expensive yet wacky-looking research projects carried out by Xerox.

Zuckerberg – the problem that’s hardest to fix

Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg is at the centre of the problems surrounding the business. His personal reputation is at a low, many see him as a villain. In an another business he might have been replaced, but Zuckerberg controls the board and voting rights.

In part the huge share sell-off was a vote of no confidence in Zuckerberg. He was lucky once turning a website for ranking hot collage girls into a major corporation. Can he do what Steve Jobs managed and repair the business he founded as it enters a new, difficult phase?

What emerges will not be the Facebook you know today. That isn’t going away soon, but its power and influence will diminish. It’s unlikely the metaverse vision that Facebook has outlined will be the answer either.

The year we filled in the telecommunications gaps

In the first part of this week’s technology segment on RNZ’s Nine to Noon show I talk with Kathryn Ryan about some of the big trends in tech this year, starting with plugging gaps in broadband coverage, the work done by the Rural Connectivity Group and extending the 5G network.

The most recent update from MBIE was in September. At the time the UFB network reached 85 percent of the population.

By March 2022 will reach 87 percent of NZ.

As we get towards the end of the build the rate of filling in those gaps drops. We’ll see why later.

The Rural Connectivity Group built close to 300 mobile towers. A lot of the work was done while the country was in lockdown.

The last announcement was in September when it reached 272 towers.

Regulators dealing with big tech

It’s also been a year regulators have started talking about – but not exactly moving on –  how to rein in big tech and strengthen privacy provisions.

It’s mainly, but not exclusively about Facebook.

Big tech companies are making moves to head off regulatory action… after all what do you think Facebook changing its name to Meta was really about?

But will it matter, if a prediction about how countries like China and Russia are keen to crack encryption through quantum computing is realised?

Russia and China are busy collecting all the encrypted data they can get their hands on.

They think there will be soon be breakthroughs in quantum computing that will let them read all that top secret material.

“Tech consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton has warned that China will soon plan the theft of high value data, so it can decrypt it once quantum computers break classical encryption.

How not to use Zoom

And then there is the business that used Zoom to fire 900 employees. Is that the best way of using the technology?

The worst thing about this story is the tech bro doing the sacking made himself the victim of the story during the call.

“If you’re on this call you’re part of the unlucky group being laid off,” said Vishal Garg, chief executive of mortgage firm Better.com, on the call, later uploaded to social media.

Facebook vileness of the week as elite favoured

Another week, another example of Facebook not taking responsibility.

At the Wall Street Journal Jeff Horwitz writes Facebook Says Its Rules Apply to All. Company Documents Reveal a Secret Elite That’s Exempt. The story is behind a paywall.

His second deck reads:

A program known as XCheck has given millions of celebrities, politicians and other high-profile users special treatment, a privilege many abuse.

Let me XCheck that…

He says XCheck started life as a quality control measure for high-profile accounts. This would cover celebrities, politicians and journalists.

“Today, it shields millions of VIP users from the company’s normal enforcement process, the documents show. Some users are “whitelisted”—rendered immune from enforcement actions—while others are allowed to post rule-violating material pending Facebook employee reviews that often never come.”

In other words there is one set of rules for everyday users and another set for the privileged.

Protection

And those rules are more different than you might imagine:

“At times, the documents show, XCheck has protected public figures whose posts contain harassment or incitement to violence, violations that would typically lead to sanctions for regular users.

“In 2019, it allowed international soccer star Neymar to show nude photos of a woman, who had accused him of rape, to tens of millions of his fans before the content was removed by Facebook.

“Whitelisted accounts shared inflammatory claims that Facebook’s fact checkers deemed false, including that vaccines are deadly, that Hillary Clinton had covered up “pedophile rings,” and that then-President Donald Trump had called all refugees seeking asylum “animals,” according to the documents.”

This is not good for society, not good for politics.

Not defensible

“A 2019 internal review of Facebook’s whitelisting practices, marked attorney-client privileged, found favoritism to those users to be both widespread and “not publicly defensible.”

“We are not actually doing what we say we do publicly,” said the confidential review. It called the company’s actions “a breach of trust”. It added: “Unlike the rest of our community, these people can violate our standards without any consequences.”

The problem with Facebook is that its reach and influence means nonsense that might otherwise go unnoticed crashes into the public domain where it can do maximum damage.

The most benign interpretation is that this is all done to trigger more clicks and sell more toothpaste or harmful sugary drink.

Writing about Facebook’s continual bad faith and unpleasantness is tiring.

Glassholes unwelcome return with Facebook, Ray-Ban

Facebook and Ray-Ban would love you to be excited about Ray-Ban Stories.

They are sunglasses with a smattering of unimpressive technology features.

Facebook’s marketing calls them smart-glasses.

Which is brave considering they are not even as smart as the now abandoned Google Glass.

Normal-looking

In effect, it is a pair of cameras, linked to your phone by Bluetooth, and carefully disguised in normal-looking sunglasses.

That’s about it.

The new Ray-Ban glasses have two cameras to capture video or photos. These sync with an app called Facebook View.

You can fire up the camera by hitting a physical button or say: “Hey Facebook, take a video”.

Speakers

While there is no display in the lens, there are Bluetooth speakers on the frame. This lets you play sound from your phone or make and receive calls. There is a physical volume control and a pause button.

Indicators let you know the device is charged or needs a charge.

A tiny white lamp illuminates what you are filming or capturing. It serves a double purpose. The idea is that when the light is on, people know they are being filmed.

Privacy dead zone

It’s a stretch to accept that everyone who sees the white light will know what it means. But then privacy and respect for people has never been a Facebook virtue.

Nick Heer suggests you can cover the light with tape for secret filming. He goes on to explain that this violates the terms of service. As if that means anything.

There’s something nasty about a product which, while pretending to be a smart device, is a voyeur’s wet dream.

Facebook might tell you the glasses make it easy to record precious family moments. It’s unlikely the company’s marketing will warn you the glasses make it easy for creeps to record your family.

Creepy

It didn’t take long for those wise to Google Glass to label the creeps wearing that device to coin the term glassholes. If the Facebook product takes off we may see that name return.

Google Glass was not a success. If anything it did the company’s reputation more harm than good. For many people, Facebook’s reputation is already in the gutter. Seeding a new generation of glassholes isn’t going to fix that.

Hong Kong’s doxxing law spooks tech giants

Asia Internet Coalition, a Singapore-based lobby group says its members may leave Hong Kong if a new doxxing laws comes into force.

AIC members include tech giants Facebook, Google and Apple.

The group worry that legislation could make them criminally liable.

Doxxing is when people publish private details about online personalities. It can be as simple as identifying the real name of someone using a pseudonym.

It could also refer to revealing addresses, phone numbers or other details used to trace and identify people.

Doxxing victims

In recent years people have weaponised the practice in Hong Kong to the point where there are thousands of victims.

People have used doxxing to scare activists off pro-democracy protests. On the other side, protestors have revealed the names of police or court officials who acted against protestors. It has also been used against journalists.

When private details are published people may find themselves on the wrong end of threatening calls or other intimidating behaviour. Sometimes this includes attacks on family members. Doxxing can lead to identity theft.

Hong Kong’s courts have found the effects can be severe and long-lasting.

The proposed privacy law amendments aim to outlaw doxxing and force social media companies and websites to take down personal information.

Psychological harm

The Hong Kong government proposes to change the existing data privacy legislation to include doxxing acts committed with the “intent to cause psychological harm”.

A conviction would be punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine of HK$1 million.

As things stand, Hong Kong’s officials can make employees of social media or other websites criminally liable.

The AIC objects to the definition of doxxing used in the proposed law. It also worries services like Facebook and Twitter might face liabilities when doxxing happens on their services.

In a letter, the AIC says the only way tech companies could avoid punishment would be by withdrawing their services from Hong Kong and ceasing to invest in the territory. It is not clear whether these companies make significant investments in Hong Kong.