Meta’s flagship metaverse is floundering, and it wants teens to rescue it

February 7, 2023, 5:22 PM UTC
The Horizon Worlds logo displayed on a smartphone with the Meta Platforms logo in the background.
Meta is reportedly planning to open Horizon Worlds up to teens.
Rafael Henrique/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Whenever I read anything about Meta’s “metaverse” efforts, I get a flashback to the day in late 2021 when Mark Zuckerberg announced his company was betting the farm on the concept. It’s not the CEO’s words that I recall, but those of longstanding metaverse champion and at-the-time Meta technologist John Carmack, who was a key figure charged with actually building the thing: “I want it to exist, but I have pretty good reasons to believe that setting out to build the metaverse is not actually the best way to wind up with the metaverse.”

Judging by a Wall Street Journal report this morning, Carmack—who left Meta at the end of last year, complaining about internal bureaucracy and complacency—won’t be eating those words anytime soon. It seems Meta now wants to boost interest in its Horizon Worlds metaverse app by targeting teens and young adults who are happily spending time in other virtual-reality apps on Meta’s hit Quest 2 headset, but not so much in the supposed flagship experience.

Here’s Horizon chief Gabriel Aul, in an internal memo reviewed by the Journal: “Today our competitors are doing a much better job meeting the unique needs of these cohorts. For Horizon to succeed we need to ensure that we serve this cohort first and foremost.”

The article paints a grim picture of Horizon’s uptake thus far. The weekly retention rate is just 11%. Four months ago—around a year after Meta’s big strategic shift—the app had fewer than 200,000 monthly active users, and Meta had just been forced to revise its target from 500,000 to 280,000 users. According to this latest report, the company’s target for the first half of this year is back up to 500,000 monthly active users, with a goal of a full million by the end of the year. The current reality, though, is “just above 200,000.”

For context, that’s roughly a thousandth of the monthly userbase for Roblox, whose metaverse-ish platform is wildly popular with kids. (Though in fairness, Roblox offers a cross-platform experience that Horizon does not, yet.) So, time for Meta to win over the same crowd? Perhaps—but if precedent is anything to go by, that’s a tall order.

Facebook, as the firm was known before its re-orientation, doesn’t exactly have youth in its DNA. It may have started out as a service for college-goers, but within a decade it was established as a platform for older people. When it bought Instagram in 2012—remember when $1 billion seemed like a lot of money?—the image-sharing platform’s younger demographic was obviously a key driver. Since then, Facebook/Meta has repeatedly tried to fend off competition from youth-friendly rivals like Snapchat and TikTok by cloning their features. Acquiring and copying may have generally worked out in the past, but Meta is now committed to a path of actual innovation.

Aul’s analysis of the problem may not be wrong—it ain’t Gen-Xers like me who would be the first serious adopters of virtual-reality technology—but his prescription also has risky elements. Like other social media companies, Meta has long been attacked for exposing young people to harmful content and negatively affecting their mental health. Lowering Horizon Worlds’ minimum age from 18 to 13, as Meta is reportedly set to do as soon as next month, will inevitably expose the company to further criticism—assuming the kids actually show up.And for that to happen, Meta needs to somehow convince them that the company behind terminally uncool Facebook has built somewhere worth spending time in. I don’t know what it would take to reverse the negative buzz that’s swallowing up Zuckerberg’s extraordinarily expensive metaverse vision, but Meta has left itself with no choice but to try.

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David Meyer

Data Sheet’s daily news section was written and curated by Andrea Guzman. 


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From the article

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