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‘Spiritual opium,’ Facebook, and the metaverse: An alternate reality on the rise

August 5, 2021, 12:21 AM UTC

“Metaverse” is a techno term that’s been garnering attention lately. The portmanteau, coined by Neal Stephenson in his 1992 novel Snow Crash, describes an all-encompassing virtual world where people interact using avatars. Think Ready Player One, the book-turned-Steven Spielberg film.

In China, the metaverse suffered a setback a few days ago, part of the country’s wide-ranging tech crackdown. A state publication, grippingly titled Economic Information Daily, called video games—the earliest examples of a metaverse to come—“spiritual opium,” a phrase that evokes past colonial subjugation. The investigation took aim, specifically, at tech giant Tencent’s Honour of Kings, a best-selling game that it claimed to be addicting Chinese youth. Despite the paper later deleting that colorful phrase—spiritual opium—from the article, the damage was already done.

The critical story was shared widely online, especially on Tencent’s ubiquitous WeChat messaging app. Tencent, China’s biggest social media and gaming company, and therefore the country’s likeliest metaverse builder, reacted swiftly. Obviously aware of the bad PR, though not commenting on it directly, Tencent promptly announced that it would enact new rules—like prohibiting pre-teens from spending money on games and restricting youngsters from gaming for more than an hour daily (or two hours on holidays).

China’s government is wary of its populace being drawn into all-consuming worlds, and investors are taking note. Tencent’s stock plunged 10% in the aftermath, wiping out $60 billion. Since then, the stock has rebounded somewhat, but it’s still down 5% overall.

In the U.S., the concept of the metaverse is more warmly received by tech elites as well as the investing public. Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, Tencent’s closest western comp, is increasingly talking up his business’s ambition to bring about a “metaverse,” a totally immersive online space in which people can socialize. The idea has fans. Investors heard Zuckerberg and, sanguine about pandemic-boosted digital ad revenue and a bit of regulatory knife-dodging, bid up Facebook’s stock to an all-time high last week.

Meanwhile, another metaverse aspirant, Epic Games, is about to kick off its so-called Rift Tour virtual event on August 6. It’s expected to draw vast virtual crowds to Fortnite, the company’s massively multiplayer, metaverse-like game. Arianna Grande, the pop star, will headline with a performance; people can even pay to buy her “skin,” using her as a playable character.

In these early days of the dawning metaverse, China is knocking its hometown darlings down a peg—not just Tencent, but Alibaba, Didi Chuxing, and others—while Facebook woos shareholders with its dreams of electric sheep. But younger rivals, like Epic Games, are already rigging up the nearest example of Stephenson’s sci-fi meta-future.

Robert Hackett
@rhhackett
robert.hackett@fortune.com

NEWSWORTHY

Elon Musk's wallet. It must be big, right? Tesla's chief has topped Bloomberg's highest-paid-CEOs list for the third year in a row, raking in $6.66 billion of option awards in 2020. Musk's pay package was so lavish that Mike Bloomberg's news outfit opted to include a "Scale without Elon Musk" that shows how the rest of corporate America's leaders stack up against one another. 

Vaccinations at Microsoft. The Washington state tech company will now require employees to be fully vaccinated in order to enter its U.S. offices, while pushing its return-to-the-office plans back almost a month until early October. 

Political ads. Facebook has disabled the personal accounts of New York University researchers, who have been studying political advertising on Mark Zuckerberg's social network. Known as the NYU Ad Observatory, the research project was created to study which political ads Facebook users see on the platform and the factors that are used to determine which ads target who—a goal that Facebook claims the group was pursuing by way of scraping data against its terms of service. Facebook sent the group a cease-and-desist letter in October 2020, while threatening further enforcement action.  

DoorDash heading overseas. In its first push into Europe, the U.S. food delivery giant reportedly plans to take on a stake in Gorillas—a Berlin grocery delivery app aiming to raise funding at a new valuation of about $2.5 billion. And while a deal has not yet closed, according to the Financial Times, one would be a significant step for DoorDash and push into the supermarket business.  

Robinhood pops. Almost a week after its disappointing debut, Robinhood shares jumped in trading Wednesday—reaching as high $85 at one point after an IPO that opened at $38. The stock's turnaround comes as options opened for trading and more and more investors piled into the name. Ark's Cathie Wood, for one, has taken on a more than 5-million-share stake in the company through just two of her ETFs. 

Windows 365. Microsoft is no longer letting more people test its cloud PC Windows 365 service. The company said it has seen an "unbelievable response" in the product's early roll out, a Microsoft executive tweeted Wednesday, leading it to pause the free-trial program until it can create additional capacity.  

This edition of Data Sheet comes courtesy of Declan Harty.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Women's voices. Just as Apple eventually ditched Susan Bennett, the original voice of Siri, TikTok seems to have done the same.

The ByteDance-owned social network recently changed the automated voice that can read a user's video text aloud, sparking widespread disapproval, including from Lil Nas X. But, as Illinois Institute of Technology associate professor Mar Hicks explains in the MIT Technology Review, the bigger story is Bev Standing, whose voice was purportedly used without permission by ByteDance before it was abruptly changed without warning or acknowledgement of Standing. A professional voice actor, Standing sued ByteDance back in May for the harm she felt its use on TikTok was causing to her career. Nonetheless, the episode has put Standing on a list stretching back decades of women who have had their roles in the tech industry's rise virtually unrecognized, whether those be in voiceover work, coding, or the founding a company. 

From the article:

While women, and particularly women of color, are often the first people tech companies go to when they need to showcase their diversity or defend themselves against criticism that their products worsen sexism and racism, these women struggle to have their expertise taken seriously at the highest levels of management and are too rarely in a position to set the agenda for technological development. 

The good news is that historians and journalists, as well as the women themselves, have been working hard to reverse this erasure and are having significant success. In the past decade, new books, articles, and films have set the record straight and changed our understanding about the importance of women's contributions to high tech. The bad news is that those contributions are still being erased in real time, including the work of women who are trying to solve some of the most important problems in tech today. As long as that's true, no matter how fast we try to correct the record, we will still end up in the same place.

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

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The war to charge your electric car is powering up by Adrian Croft

Instacart hires another senior female Facebook vet, naming ex-ad chief Carolyn Everson president by Maria Aspan

These companies made the biggest jumps on this year's Fortune Global 500 by Declan Harty

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BEFORE YOU GO

Nessie. Fortune's Declan Harty, who helped put together today's Data Sheet, here. I am not Scottish. I have never been to Scotland. And yet, recently, I have developed a somewhat-weird-but-in-my-opinion-totally-understandable interest in the Loch Ness Monster. So, when The Wall Street Journal dropped an A-hed on how residents in Drumnadrochit, Scotland, handle research findings that say a large fish is likely the source and not some sort of aquatic behemoth, I thought it was important to share it with Data Sheet readers. Plus, the stipple drawing. 

Fortune’s upcoming Brainstorm Design conference is going to dive into how businesses are building experiences in the metaverse. Apply to attend the event on May 23-24 in New York.