All Hail Zuckerberg, King of Meta

strategy tech Feb 01, 2022
A child wearing VR goggles

In the 1950s the humorist Stephen Potter introduced the idea of one-upmanship. The concept is that in life you must be ‘one-up’ on everyone else. Because if you are not one-up, you must be one-down. Over the course of six books and the superlative School for Scoundrels film, he created an eye-wateringly funny doctrine of how to win without actually cheating. For example, the way to win in golf is to only play fourballs, and agree with your partner which of the opposition you will speak to during the round. By only socialising with and praising one of your opponents, you can quickly destroy their team’s harmony and win the match. The greatest ploy of them all, the ‘primary hamper’, is to change the flow. Disrupt whatever is working for your opponent, in the certainty that this will put them off their game.

Just when the clamour to denounce Facebook was reaching fever pitch during their ongoing whistle-blower crisis, Mark Zuckerberg played his primary hamper. He changed the name of the Facebook holding company to Meta Platforms Inc. This was far more than a standard PR stunt or misguided attempt to ‘jump the shark’ to distract unpopular opinion. It was a deeply personal and visionary re-orientation of Facebook towards the fabled metaverse, backed by a billion dollar investment. Zuckerberg underscored this by outlining his vision from his Hawaiian home, giving the world an unwanted glimpse of his taste for interior design from the school of Bond villains.

There is no doubt that Mark Zuckerberg is the King of Meta. He instantly changed the narrative around Facebook and the company’s shares have rallied consistently since the nadir of 27th October (the day before the Meta announcement). The big question is whether he will be the King of the metaverse. If you are not familiar with this concept, it is the idea that in the near future there will be a persistent virtual world which we inhabit alongside our physical one. Every aspect of daily life would be replicated and enhanced by gathering in this parallel virtual domain. Augmented reality will provide links between them, much as the mythical Floating Heavenly Bridge once provided the Japanese gods with a gateway to the earth.

It's a profound idea and a radical vision of the future of the internet. It’s not actually Zuckerberg’s. The term metaverse was coined in 1992 by the science fiction writer Neal Stephenson, who imagined a virtual world of avatars. This was made real by the makers of Second Life. But the idea actually predates the internet, and can be traced as far back as William Blake, the 18th century polymath and poet. He was fired by the idea that humans could free their spirits to live in an imaginary world beyond the mortal coil. Only in this more spiritual virtual world can humans realise their potential: ‘Imagination the real and eternal World of which this Vegetable Universe is but a faint shadow and in which we shall live in our Eternal or Imaginative Bodies, when these Vegetable Mortal Bodies are no more.’ Blake even anticipated augmented reality headsets with his prediction that, ‘there are things known, and things unknown, and in between are the Doors.’ Fittingly, the first British museum to make a piece of collection artwork available as an NFT, chose Blake’s ‘The Ancient of Days’.

It doesn’t really matter that it is not an original idea. Did Elon Musk come up with the idea for electric cars? The key thing is Zuckerberg is running with it. And in so doing, he is giving a perfect demonstration of how to do strategy in the 21st century.

Firstly, there is the vision. Far too many strategists are lost in data. Data has value, of course, and is an essential input into the strategic process. But strategy really lives in the realm beyond data. Because data is a record of past behaviour and strategy is about how behaviour might be shaped in the future. It has to be imaginative. You must imagine a future scenario that is different from the status quo, desirable and deliverable. The first glimpse of this future state usually comes in a company’s vision. If you don’t have a vision statement, you may want to get one soon. Because your vision is needed to create different scenarios and find the optimal outcome for your business. Zuckerberg’s metaverse vision is epic, far more radical than Big tech peers.

Next, there is the purpose. Strategy is not an academic exercise. It is also instinctive and emotional. Not all future paths are equally desirable. You need to choose the one that is best suited to your business. Your purpose provides this vital direction. Without purpose you are navigating blind. Meta has inherited Facebook’s purpose of making the world more connected. Clearly this lacks an important value dimension, such as connecting people to enrich lives, to differentiate connecting globally separated families from connecting a dispersed terrorist cell planning an attack. But even in its raw state, it provides direction. Meta exists to increase connectivity. If it already dominates the current means of connectivity through social media platforms, then it should turn its attention to the platforms and environments where we will be connecting in the future. The metaverse is a natural fit.

Finally, there is the strategic analysis. This is where strategists really earn their money. For you need to find a purpose-driven, visionary future that is likely to happen. Strategy is about making, rather than hedging bets. Which way is the world heading? And given this analysis (although diagnosis would be a better term as it comes from the Greek for distinguish or discern), what is the future state that we think we can bring about? Strategy is inherently risky because the future is unpredictable. Most strategic gambles fail because the business went one way, the world went another. Zuckerberg will have been alarmed by the dramatic rise of TikTok, the growing tide of anti-Facebook resentment, and the potentially devastating effects of regulation and privacy controls on the current business model. Of all the Big Tech players, Meta is the most vulnerable. It makes sense to plan for a future where ecosystem dynamics are different and more favourable to Meta shareholders.

Will the metaverse happen and will Zuckerberg be King of it? For both, it is too early to say. There are two enormous challenges to overcome. The first is to migrate billions of people from the current internet-enriched physical world into the metaverse. Many will be willing pioneers. But others will be more resistant, especially if the price of entry is expensive VR hardware, a reliance on Meta owned infrastructure, and the exposure of our entire lives to advertisers. The second challenge is whether the metaverse will really be any different to the current world for Zuckerberg. Surely the very problems he is trying to escape from (unhappiness with Meta, regulation and new entrants) will follow any mass migration into the metaverse?

It will be interesting to see what happens. He certainly wants it, for both commercial and personal reasons. You can see Zuckerberg being more at ease when he has brought the world into the domain in which he feels most comfortable. If Meta misplaced its big bet and ultimately crashes and burns, then at least we’ll be able to watch it on VR goggles in our living rooms. In the meantime, let’s praise what was a brilliant piece of purpose-driven strategy. And ask ourselves, what worlds will we create before our vegetable mortal bodies are no more?


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