Your metaverse strategy needs to go beyond Facebook

As a business leader, you’ve probably been eyeing the headlines about the metaverse and pondering your organization’s future there. Maybe you already have a metaverse strategy — in which case, congratulations on your virtual fashions, virtual makeup, virtual bank lobby, or whatever other virtual product you’ve already launched. Or perhaps you’re watching the news of the metaverse a bit like a drunk patron at an all-night diner watching a rat in the corner to make sure it doesn’t get any closer as you hurry to eat your grilled cheese.

Speaking as someone who founded a business called [meta]marketer in the late 2000s, the observation of the “meta” nature of much of the digital space is not new. But given Facebook’s brand pivot to Meta, this seems like the moment to delve into this topic more fully here.

Sorry, I had to do it.

What does all this have to do with Facebook?

If you’ve been living under a rock (or in quarantine) for the past few months: there’s been a bit of discussion about Facebook lately. This includes not just the outcry surrounding their unethical ad practices, but also the implications of their algorithmic manipulation of content in users’ feeds. A lot of this discussion has been brought to high alert by whistleblowers like Frances Haugen.

But Facebook has also garnered headlines (and, pardon my skepticism, effectively diverted some of the public sentiment from outrage to curiosity) for the announcement of their new corporate structure, with Meta as the name of the new overarching company above Facebook, Instagram, Whatsapp, Oculus, and everything else.

As someone who has been widely quoted (and somewhat misquoted) for my criticism of Facebook in the media, allow me to go on record in saying this:

The metaverse isn’t Facebook, and that’s good news.

But why not adopt Facebook’s platform for your metaverse strategy? Why look beyond Facebook?

I’m not here to crucify or praise Facebook, nor am I trying to rule out their role in future metaverse efforts. I’m certain their contributions will be substantial. But at best, those efforts are likely to be proprietary and built around these same questionable ethical practices that keep bringing them back into the headlines.

Their objectives will naturally be to increase the time users spend in their apps, increase their advertising revenue, and increase user growth. These goals are a pretty standard part of an overall company strategy that aims to build value for the shareholders of that company. So Facebook isn’t evil because they want these things — in this respect, they’re simply acting as a business. The sticking point is the means by which they achieve them, what they’re willing to sacrifice in the meantime, and the lengths to which they’re willing to go.

Just one more, sorry.

The larger potential of virtual worlds

I’ve said for years that our digital selves are our aspirational selves, and that was before we had the latest bloom of deeply immersive virtual playgrounds to spin our avatar around in.

If we think about virtual worlds as the earliest adopter of the metaverse label, it makes sense that Facebook would want to harness them for their potential. It’s already been happening with “social VR” experiences like AltspaceVR and vTime. We’re seeing more indications of this trend with relationship statuses between Oculus Rift and Spaces. We see it in the News Feed’s support of 360 degree video. As tech companies become more enamored with the potential of virtual reality, they’ll try to take control where it matters most: social media. The advertising implications are significant, as is the opportunity for them to tie your identity to one identity across all these devices/implementations/experiences.

But this is precisely why I’m wary of Facebook’s enterprise in the metaverse. Even if their contributions are intended to be open source, they’ll be tied up with legal agreements that could potentially give them an upper hand in how these technologies develop. The implications for user privacy and security are tremendous when it comes to transitioning between virtual worlds. We just don’t have time for them to play catch-up on cleaning up their ethical practices while they simultaneously try to figure out how best to lock down and monetize the virtual land-grab.

In any case, the metaverse isn’t Facebook, and Facebook’s vision of the metaverse isn’t the be-all end-all. There are entire worlds of creative vision left to dream up and implement. Which is why you need a good metaverse strategy to build from: one that puts human experience at the center, and pulls your brand forward.

What should your metaverse strategy actually look like, then?

Well, this part is fun. This is part of what I address in my keynote and consulting around Third Places and Third Spaces. If you are beginning a brainstorming process with your team, here are some thought-starters you can use to provoke discussion and ideas.

  • Think about interoperability. What is the value of being radically extensible?
  • Think about expansiveness. What is the meaning of extending beyond perceived limitations, while simultaneously offering a sense of place?
  • Think about the value of your brand to people who enjoy it. What does that suggest about the economy of the experience your brand can create?
  • Think about persistence, synchronicity, and on-demand experiences. Think also about the value of special experiences that might happen at one time. What does that temporal value mean to the people who enjoy your brand?

These are questions and provocations that aren’t intended to have simple, easy answers. They’re meant to get your brain gears turning and new ideas churning.

The best answers here are those that pull you forward into new insights about your brand and how to enrich your offering with relevance.

As always, if we can be of help, please reach out.

I look forward to seeing what strategic visions you bring to the metaverse. The opportunity is so much bigger than any one company. And it’s big enough to bring your brand — and the people who interact with it — into a brighter future.

The “humanization” of technology?

One of the perks of being a lifelong sociolinguistics nerd (full disclosure: there aren’t that many) is when I can take notice of the range of terminology people use to describe my own work. It turns out people have a wide variety of ways to think about and describe the relationship between technology and humanity. Most recently I’ve been hearing the term “humanization of technology” pop up a lot from companies looking to bring me in for speaking or advising services. I find it such a fascinating term for a few reasons.

What’s wrong with “humanizing technology”?

It’s not that the term is wrong, per se. And after all, it’s very similar to my own language around Tech Humanism, and all of the similar terms I use. It’s just that the nuance I infer from it — which is, to be clear, not necessarily what those prospective clients may have been implying — is that it suggests adding a human face to tech. It even feels almost manipulative.

If you think about it, most of the time we don’t actually use the term “humanizing” in everyday language — although we do often talk about “dehumanizing.” That suggests that when we talk about things that are dehumanizing, we’re starting from a default perspective that our humanity is intact. So forces that would dehumanize us threaten the fullness of our humanity.

The assumption with “humanizing,” on the other hand, is that we’re talking about a context where our humanity is not intact, and that there is something that must happen to ensure that we are granted our full humanity.

The idea that this is how people are approaching the discussion of technology is illuminating.

But I mean, I see their point, of course. Technology — especially as it’s used within bureaucratic business processes — can certainly be used in ways that disenfranchise and disempower our humanity.

What’s the alternative? Not humanizing?

Rather than “humanizing technology,” philosophically, I prefer to orient from where we already are fully human, and employ our human sensibilities to create the kinds of experiences that would most amplify our human wellness and fullness. That’s why my work centers on meaning, which I consider to be core to human traits and central to the human condition.

Achieve “humanization” by aligning business objectives with human outcomes

But again, I know where people are coming from with this framing and terminology. In fact, I’ve been asked in an interview before, by Douglas Magazine:
“So in other words, humanizing tech is good for both business and the consumer?”

And my answer at that time speaks directly to the business imperative underlying the terminology:

“If a business entity can create an experience for the human being that is more seamless and more frictionless and more delightful and aligned with what they’re trying to accomplish, then, yes, it stands to be a more efficient experience on the business’s side too. It improves both sides of the experience. There’s this natural harmony that can happen there.
“Business is responsible for creating most of the technology that’s out there. That technology is responsible for creating more and more human experiences. And so it feels like finding that right symmetry of the relationship between human technology and business, and really bringing that into harmony is the only way that we’re going to have a future that builds meaning and an awareness of human joy, and context and meaning.”

— me, as quoted in Douglas Magazine, September 30, 2020

So what are some “humanizing”-by-default approaches we can bring to our work to operate from a place of full humanity?

The best ways to bring a fullness of humanity into the work you’re doing is to adopt approaches that are humanizing by default, like:

Encourage “humanizing” language: instead of always saying “users” or “customers,” (or “students” or “patients” or what-have-you), say “people” when you mean “people.” This can help bring a humanizing perspective to the sales experience, the marketing language, the operations, and whatever technology you’re deploying throughout the organization.

Recognize that most of the data that passes through business is human data, and make an effort to think in humanizing terms when you interact with that data in the business model. This is part of what allows business to align its objectives with human outcomes.

Get clear on what human problems you’re trying to solve at scale, and encourage teams to translate their own work into how it helps the company solve those problems.

Why focus on words like “humanization” or “humanizing” — why do the words matter?

Language matters, and the words we choose to describe our work matters. In fact, how we describe the world is in no small part how we experience the world. Even the way we experience words and ideas changes us:

The upshot is that the current state of people’s bodies affected the words they used. This is again compatible with the idea that the meanings of relatively abstract words are based in embodied simulations of the more concrete things they’re described in terms of.

— Louder Than Words, Benjamin K. Bergen

And if we can agree that that is so, then how much more important is it that the actual embodied experiences we build around us — meaning, the ones we design into the built environment, into technology, into amplified, accelerated, algorithmically optimized experiences — represent the best and most enlightened ideals we have?

Meaning matters. Metaphor matters. Let’s be intentional with our words so that we can be even more intentional with the experiences we create for ourselves, our future selves, and future generations.

The uncanniness of seeing human beings where human beings are not supposed to be

Somewhere on my computer, I keep a collection of images of humans showing up in non-human contexts. These are contexts that are supposed to be sterile and devoid of humanity. If you’ve just wandered into my site on a search, that may sound like a rather odd hobby; if you’ve been here a while you’ve known for a long time that this is par for the course.

Anyway, it goes like this: I’m a lifelong devotee of secondhand shopping. Naturally, I’m a huge fan of the website thredUP. (Disclosure: that link is a referral link that’s worth $10 to us both if you’re a new customer). It’s a fantastic site for buying used women’s (and children’s) clothes, with lots of great features like saved searches and such. They’ve even featured me as one of the most fashionable women in the US, if you can believe that. They’re a fast-growing, tech-enabled company that went public earlier this year (more disclosure: I definitely bought some of those shares). And their efficient process for photographing the roughly 100K items that get merchandised to their storefront every day generally results in very high-quality photos of their items. In fact, they have a patent on that photography process.

But every now and then, when you’re not expecting to, you’ll see a human sneak into the photo. Just an arm, or a torso. It’s vaguely disconcerting but also kind of warm and humbling, a peek behind the curtain and a reminder that there are people behind so many processes we take for granted. (Note that the topic of “ghost workers” has come up repeatedly on The Tech Humanist Show.)

human torso with clothes on thredup
Hello, human!

Digital Weirdness

It’s also an example of what I like to call Digital Weirdness. And this one below strikes me as extra-weird in that they actually included it in their Instagram ad carousel.

human arm with blazer on thredup
Advertising the weirdness

I am, of course, not alone in having this hobby: Andrew Norman Wilson has a 2019 piece at WIRED about his collection of human hands showing up in Google Books scanned images. Enjoy.

Why Strategic Optimism is not toxic positivity

Today is National Optimists Day, apparently. (I mean, there’s a day for everything.)

In honor of the, uh, holiday(?), I wanted to address a point of confusion that has surfaced in a few of my media interviews since launching A Future So Bright. People latch on to the word “bright” in the title as well as “optimism” in the book’s subtitle (“How Strategic Optimism and Meaningful Innovation Can Restore Our Humanity and Save the World”) and they tend to overlook the all-important word “strategic” — not to mention the “meaningful innovation” bit, which is a necessary piece of the solution.

In other words, there seems to be a temptation to reduce the entire discussion to something like “looking on the bright side of life.” And hey, I can certainly own that a good deal of the fault here lies with me for titling the book that way. But there’s so much more to this book than the reductive idea of “looking on the bright side.” Rather than gloss over the darkness and the problems in the world, the ideas in the book are intended to help us face those challenges and still create the brighter future we’d like to see. So here on National Optimists Day, I’d very much like to clear up this misunderstanding.

Because so many discussions about what it means to be optimistic veer into the realm of what is often referred to as “toxic positivity.” And when it comes to technology, optimistic views too often lead to a mindless kind of techno-optimism, or techno-utopianism. None of this is actually helpful.

What IS helpful is to blend an optimistic view of what’s possible with a strategy for how to get there. Strategic Optimism, as I call it. That way we see the best of what we can achieve, and we get to work, with a plan, to make it happen. It’s an active process. All the while, we acknowledge what can go wrong and work to prevent the risks and harms from happening. But our focus — and our effort — stays oriented toward the best outcomes.

So think of this as a gift in celebration of National Optimists Day, if you like: I’ve decided to share below a good chunk of what I wrote about optimism — and specifically about my model of Strategic Optimism — in A Future So Bright, free for you to read right here. (And of course, after that you are welcome to go buy the book.) I’ve even added boldface emphasis in a few places to help you skim if you just want to get the broad strokes.

Let’s have a look:

Optimism gets a bad rap. […] So for reasons I’ll lay out here, the position I’m taking is clear-eyed, determined optimism with a commitment to follow-through, and it’s the stance I hope you’ll take alongside me before you’re finished reading this book.

The problem with optimism has been that instead of wielding it as a powerful tool for envisioning and working toward the best outcomes, people roundly mock it as a folly of the naïve. Historically, optimism in literature and philosophy has been dismissed as unthinking, unserious, unintellectual. And when they aren’t being ridiculed, optimists are scorned for willfully ignoring real harms.

But what about the advantages of looking at the bright side? A savvy approach to optimism can help us avoid the kind of failure that comes from not thinking about what might happen if things go better than we planned. And when it’s used properly and paired with the right tools, as I’ll explain in this book, optimism can actually help us acknowledge the whole truth of our circumstances, direct our focus, and align our efforts toward the best way forward.

Optimism doesn’t have to be simple-minded, shortsighted, or unaccompanied by rationalism. So yes indeed, there is a way to harness the power of optimism so that it is as clear-eyed as possible, as strategic as possible, as inclusive as possible, as aligned with success as possible, as actionable as possible, and as achievable as possible. That is the only optimism worth having, and it is the approach this book lays out.

[…]

The best way—perhaps the only way—to build a bright future is to challenge ourselves to envision the best future possible for the most people while at the same time acknowledging the ways the future could go dark and working to prevent that from happening.

Looking at what can go right as well as what can go wrong is a key part of what I call the Strategic Optimism Model. […] What this approach asks of us, in short, is to look at the whole picture, acknowledge the risks and the potential harms, and then actively work to mitigate them as we steer toward the most helpful, most meaningful outcomes.

The biggest obstacle in front of us? We’ve been taught to think about and talk about the future in too limited a way. Dystopia versus utopia? That’s more than useless; it’s dangerous. The falseness of that dichotomy (which we’ll explore in Beyond “Dystopia versus Utopia“), the dismissal of utopia as impossible, and the resulting despair of being left to accept an ever-encroaching dystopia keeps us from focusing on and addressing what we can actively do every day to ensure tomorrow is better than today, and next year is better than this year. It’s time to disrupt dystopia and give ourselves the freedom to imagine the bright future we really want to create.

— O’Neill, Kate. A Future So Bright: How Strategic Optimism and Meaningful Innovation Can Restore Our Humanity and Save the World. KO Insights.

Got that? Good. Feeling fired up? Even better. Here’s some more:

Let’s start with what Strategic Optimism is not:

Strategic Optimism is not “the power of positive thinking.”

Positive thinking is appealing for many and arguably important as guidance for aligning resources and focusing efforts. But I find its most devout adherents often take its application too far and apply it too literally.

It can quickly turn into an ugly case of victim blaming—as in, if you don’t have everything, you must not be thinking positively enough. For example: Got cancer? Why don’t you just think your way out of it?

That’s not at all the mindset we’re looking for here. Where the positivity principles do make sense is in aligning with our experience. The key is that framing our goals in terms of positive outcomes as opposed to negative ones—e.g., “I want to be wealthy” instead of “I don’t want to be broke”—generally lends itself to a stronger overall ability to focus and rally resources. It makes a very simple kind of sense: There is momentum in the positive, whereas the negative is all about stopping, and there’s no forward motion in that. Life is all about forward motion, so it’s practical to use a mental model that aligns with our experience and feels like it accompanies us as we move through time and space.

It’s not a matter of “law of attraction” or “power of positive thinking,” but rather of accepting that perceived limitations change our actions. If we let our beliefs limit us, we are guaranteed not to try.

Strategic Optimism is not about ignoring the limitations, risks, or harms that do exist; in fact, it’s about acknowledging the full reality of the current situation and the full range of possible outcomes, mitigating the worst outcomes, and working diligently toward achieving the best.

So what is Strategic Optimism, then?

The best results come about when we not only visualize the best possible future but also make a plan to commit ourselves to achieving it. This by necessity entails some variation of making goals, creating timelines, and sticking to them. In other words, developing some kind of strategy to achieve what you are hoping for.

Laying out a plan also means acknowledging the risks and harms that could occur and developing more plans to mitigate those, but also spending time on the ways the plan could go right and investing effort in ensuring those positive results come to fruition.

When we lay out our plans for the future, we know that we need to acknowledge the risks, but we often forget to spend as much time thinking about the opportunities. This can actually cost us: We might underestimate how successful a new product could be, for instance, and fail to have a way to meet demand; we might negotiate well below the value of our contributions in a job or a project; we might be so preoccupied with worst-case scenarios that when our moment to shine takes us by surprise, we’re fully unprepared for it.

— O’Neill, Kate. A Future So Bright: How Strategic Optimism and Meaningful Innovation Can Restore Our Humanity and Save the World. KO Insights.

It’s hard to overstate how helpful optimism with a strategy can be — while at the same time it’s hard to overstate how harmful it is to allow the above to be oversimplified and made into positivity without a plan.

Throughout my research, I kept encountering quotes about optimism. Some of them resonated, some very much did not. This discussion brings me back to one of the two quotes that I chose to the open the book, which spoke to me the most:

“My optimism wears heavy boots and is loud.”

— Henry Rollins

My optimism brings a strategy. How about yours?