Tech lobbying and "influence" reporter Emily Birnbaum joins Niki Christoff in the studio for a quick conversation about what the metaverse is, why Facebook changed its name to Meta, and how close we are to this virtual 3D future. Do we really have to go there?
Niki: I’m Niki Christoff, and welcome to Tech’ed Up. Today I’m joined in the studio by Emily Birnbaum, who reports on tech influence and lobbying for POLITICO. It’s a quick conversation in which we try to unpack what the metaverse is, why Facebook changed its name to Meta, and how close we are to this virtual 3D future.
Niki: Welcome to Tech’ed Up. Today in the studio, we have Emily Birnbaum, a technology reporter. Emily, welcome!
Emily: Thank you so much for having me in this beautiful studio.
Niki: This is a great studio, right? [Emily: It's fantastic.] Thank you. Well, thank you to Selcuk, who owns a studio and manages it for us, but it is very hip, which I always am saying things are hip, which is evidence that I'm not. [Emily: Yeah] [both laugh] Emily, tell me what you do for a living.
Emily: Yes! So, I am a tech influence and lobbying reporter for POLITICO. Um, so I covered tech policy for about two and a half years, and now I've switched more onto the, uh, lobbying side of things, which is extremely fun.
Niki: Extremely fun for you! The last time we were together, we were having coffee, and your phone was sort of ringing off the hook with people. Frankly, powerful people pleading their case, um, because you were writing a story. And I think it's a fascinating thing about Washington, that, that, reporters really do have so much power over what you write. And I think what you do is really important. How does that feel?
Emily: That's nice. [chuckle] That's nice. I don't think of myself as that important. I think I kept saying to you that day, this isn't a typical, like, y’know, 10:00 AM for me. I love journalism. I think journalism is powerful. I think often the people, y’know, like I like to write stories about very particular subjects, like, take aim at particular people or particular groups, and then it really matters to them. Whether it matters more broadly. I don't know.
Niki: It matters to them! [both laugh] Which leads us to the topic of the day. [Emily: Yeah] So, I asked you to come on to talk about the metaverse. Because suddenly, I'm, it's my understanding we have to go there. We're on our way. [both laugh] [Emily: Yeah] And the reason we're all talking about the metaverse is because Facebook, which in Washington has as much heat and light and attention on it as any other company, recently changed their name to Meta. [Emily: They did do that]. Then did an earnings call where Mark Zuckerberg talked all about the vision for the metaverse. And I think people don't even know what it is. So, what I'd love to do today is talk through what is the metaverse or at least what's our understanding of it.
Why do we think Facebook changed their name to Meta, and what's their plan? And then, how do you think Washington and regulators are thinking about this? If at all. And how is it impacting what they're up to?
Emily: Yeah, this is a fun topic.
Niki: Okay! This is a fun topic. [both chuckle] So, let's start with what is the metaverse?
Emily: Okay! So, here's the most helpful thing anyone has said to me about what the metaverse is. Mark Zuckerberg thinks that the metaverse is the next chapter of the internet. It is the new internet. So, in the same way that we're going to struggle throughout this conversation to describe exactly what the metaverse is and what it isn't, I think people, probably before the rise of the internet, were struggling to understand what is the internet, what isn't it.
But, y’know, I think at its base, it's a blurring of our virtual and real world. I think it's, uh, y’know, you can think of us, y’know, we're in this podcast studio in, in a metaverse world, we could record this podcast in the metaverse. So, I would be an avatar. You would be an avatar. We'd both look cute or whatever. [Niki: laughs] Wearing our little- we will have customized our avatars to either look like us or not look like us, and we'll be interacting in that setting. And, and the metaverse will be a interconnected world built on VR, AR, uh, y’know, there– it's going to be [pause, questioningly] exciting?
Niki: Exciting. [both laugh] So, we're going to plug ourselves into virtual reality headsets and instead of meeting in person and having a coffee and talking in the podcast studio, we would be doing this remotely. [Emily: Yeah] So, this is my thought on the metaverse. I think… gaming, there already is the metaverse, right? [Emily: Yeah] People are plugged into whatever game with their avatar and buying things and operating there. And that seems like an entertainment side of it. But, what is, I think, Mark Zuckerberg is talking about just expanding the way we interact in all ways into this 3D world. Almost, like, Ready Player One where you're just plugged in, maybe indefinitely?
Emily: Yeah. Yeah. I think the point- So, like, y’know, there's, like, Roblox, there's Fortnite. There's sort of, like, elements of, y’know, the metaverse within what each of those companies are trying to do. So, it's sort of, like, y’know, interconnected worlds where people are playing games and interacting and having live concerts and buying Gucci bags and all that kind of stuff.
And I think the point is that the metaverse is, like, in the same way, the internet isn't an app, like, the metaverse will be, like, multiple of those kinds of worlds that you can, like, move in between. And I like, I, I think, it's not like no one's ever gonna leave their apartment again, or something like that, but I just think it's, like, the natural next step if we live in a mostly online world right now, like, we're, y’know, we're all on zoom calls together. We're all, y’know, on Slack all the time. It's just kind of the next step in a more, like, embodied way to have virtual or partially virtual.
Niki: So, I think, so, I'm glad you mentioned Roblox, which if people listening don't know what that is, their kids definitely do. [Emily: Yeah] ‘Cause they're all playing it. I also know that Niantic Labs, our last guest Camille François, um, just announced last week, she's going there to join, to work on, sort of, trust and safety, and that's the Pokemon Go company. [Emily: Yeah] Which, I thought Pokémon Go was done? No, it's not done. People are still heavily involved in it. [Emily: Is that right?] Yes! Yes.
Emily: That’s so exciting! [Niki: Big time!] [both chuckle] [Niki: yeah] So, like, people are still, like, going around, looking for things and, like, all in community with each other and all that stuff? [trails off]
Niki: Correct! [Emily: Wild!] Correct. And this is why I think there's sort of the gaming aspect because that's a particular community. And I also think the metaverse, like to the extent that I have to go to there [Emily: chuckles], I don't mind doing it for an enterprise purpose, like for work. [Emily: Yeah] I mean, I don't know how well it's going to work. Like, I think- love Microsoft as a company, but Microsoft Teams, I feel like is pretty glitchy as it is. I don't know how we add, like, an avatar. [Emily: Oh my gosh] To throw someone else under the bus, you know, HBO, my streaming app never works either. [Emily: Yeah] So, I don't know if HBO Max doesn't work, how the metaverse is going to work?
Emily: Yeah. This is the thing, is, like, when you read about the metaverse, you try to talk about it. Like, I think it's really a ways off. It's almost, I get this frustration, in the same way I feel when we talk about, like, certain kinds of AI, like, a lot of the kinds of AI that we talk about aren't here yet in some fully realized form. It's going to take a lot longer to get, really, the most intelligent kinds of technology that we, like, talking about hypothetically. So, it's like the metaverse is, like, an idea. And, like, people are heading towards it and it's not here. [chuckles] And I don't think we're, like, technologically equipped for it. And we're definitely not equipped for it from a regulatory standpoint.
Niki: Right! [Emily: You know] [Emily: chuckles] Which leads us to… another topic of the day, which is Meta. [Emily: Yeah] Meta, formerly known as Facebook until quite recently. Are we going to call them Meta?
Emily: Yeah, I was just saying this! It's actually kind of a difficult communications problem for journalists right now. Lots of different organizations have made different decisions about how to handle it. So when Alphabet, for instance, like, the, the best analog in the tech world is, like, when, Google, y’know, the, the Google parent company Alphabet was formed. People didn't start, y’know, calling them Alphabet. Usually, they would continue to just say Google when they were talking about the company.
But with Facebook, it's really [questioningly] working better [chuckles] than that Alphabet rebrand. Like, a lot of news organizations are creating rules, like: “Meta, formerly known as Facebook”, or, like, said: “Meta company spokesperson”; “Meta, which owns Facebook.” ‘Cause, that's still the name of the blue app which owns Instagram. Y’know, that's still the name of that app. But, honestly, it's kind of like, it's difficult because people will click on an article that says, y’know, “Facebook is doing x.” But people don't, don't quite know yet that Facebook [chuckle] has rebranded to Meta. Like, writ large. [Niki: Right!] You know, like, you and I know cause we have to, but most people aren't aware of that.
So, POLITICO, at least, like, we're going to continue to use Facebook wherever we can. Like, that's what I'll say. [chuckles]
Niki: I'm for that! [Emily: Yeah] Because I do think, I do think it's, intentionally, y’know, it's, it doesn't seem accidental to me that this name change happened in probably the worst week of press in the history of Facebook. [Emily: Yeah] [quickly] Meta, formerly known as Facebook. It reminds me a little bit of when Comcast changed their name to Xfinity. And I was like throwing my mother's cable bills in the trash. ‘Cause we didn't, I didn't know we had an Xfinity.
Emily: Yeah. [both laugh] That's such a good comparison!
Niki: And then I realized, oh my gosh, this is Comcast. They just changed their name because, people- they were so loathed. [Emily: Yeah] And it kind of worked actually; it gave them a refresh. It's interesting. You mentioned Alphabet because I, so, I worked in corporate communications at Google [Emily: Right], when we made that change and [Emily: that's crazy] Yeah, yeah! So, we were, we were there and we discussed it and I think one of the differences is, Alphabet, the other companies within the Alphabet umbrella had their own names too. So, it was sort of when you talked about the different parts, the different elements of those, um, portfolio companies, we still, whenever we were talking about Google, we were talking about Google. [Emily: Right] But it is interesting to me, very interesting to me, that we've just sort of very quickly agreed to start calling Facebook Meta at a time when Facebook is probably a, not an asset, but a liability to the company as a brand.
Emily: Yeah. Yeah. And in terms of, if this, I mean, a lot of people have made the point to me, like Facebook didn't decide to rebrand in the wake of the Francis Haugen disclosures. Like, they were obviously working and pivoting and, y’know, towards the metaverse for a while. Like, it had definitely been months; they were talking about it publicly, but obviously, it came at an extremely opportune moment.
Y’know, Zuckerberg unveiled it like a week after Haugen was in Congress. Um, but because it came at that moment, it was almost like an educational experience for policymakers, because then all the policymakers, like a lot of lawmakers, like AOC and, uh, Ron Wyden, like all these, y’know, lawmakers who are involved in regulating tech, they all put out statements that were like, “Facebook can rebrand to Meta, it doesn't mean they don't have all of their problems anyways.” So, like, I think we'll probably see lawmakers catching onto the name change, but it's not going to change the core policy issues. It's not like that doesn't get through to Washington in, in any particular way right now.
Niki: I think that makes sense. Although, now we are hearing lawmakers they have to now talk about regulating this three-dimensional space. [Emily: Yeah] That's years away. I have a theory about Facebook and Meta, [Emily: Yeah] metaverse, [Emily: Yeah] and Mark Zuckerberg. So my theory is, again, we just talked about, I was at Google during the rebranding. I'm like Encino Man. I've worked in tech for a gajillion years.[Emily: I know]
And when I started in tech, I had a Motorola Razor, like a flip phone. It was hot pink. [Emily: I had one too] Oh, it was the best! [Emily: Yeah] I kind of wish I still had one! [both chuckle] So I started the year the iPhone was released. Android didn’t have a phone. Google didn't have a phone yet. And we were printing money at Google. Basically, there were elves in the basement and just printing money because everyone was on desktops or laptops, and they were all using- competition was a click away.
They could have used Bing, but they were using Google Search and it dominated the ad space. And one of the things Facebook did very well is when they saw the mobile-first future, they were an app. And so for Google, suddenly you have people searching within apps instead of directly through Google [Emily: Yeah] So then, they had to play catch up. But one of the things, this is my theory on the metaverse. [Emily: Yeah]. The one thing Mark Zuckerberg does not have is an operating system. He doesn't have Android and he doesn't have iOS. He doesn't have Windows. And I think the metaverse is really an operating system play.
Emily: Yeah. That's, I think that's really interesting because, like, I think Zuckerberg has said things along this line, like, they missed hardware. And so, they are always at the behest of Apple and Google. And, y’know, if they dominate the metaverse, if they're one of the corporations that gets in there early, then they are going to dictate the rules of the road for other people, or potentially could.
There's obviously a lot of, like, debate around that within the metaverse conversation [chuckles]. Y’know, like, is this just gonna be another sphere of life that's, like, dominated by, like, five, six corporations. There's a movement to push against that, as we both know. But I think it's a really, really interesting question.
I think this is interesting, like, the original metaverse concept came in a sci-fi novel that was about what the world will look like in the future when corporations run everything. Um, I'm like we live in that world, [both laugh] and is the metaverse going to be just like another iteration of that?
Niki: And the alternative, I guess, and this is something we should think about..and maybe it's something people in Washington should be talking about is kind of an open-source operating system for the metaverse. Where it's not a walled garden. I mean, I think that there are advantages to both Android and Apple and how they set up their operating systems, but if you have yet another walled garden, the alternative to that is everybody creates an open-source system or a totally decentralized system, which leads us to a topic we're not going to talk about today, [Emily: Thank you!] but what’s Web3?
Emily: Thank you, yeah, thank you for not! [both laugh] [Niki: No one knows what it is!] But at least philosophically, that's the foundation of it.
Niki: Right. Exactly! Okay, okay. So, what-we'll finish on this: What should we be thinking about with Facebook being Meta? All of these changes. What's your, like, take on their place in Washington? Do you think that this rebrand and talking about this next universe they want to dominate plays into their antitrust and competition issues? What are you hearing on the Hill? And like, what's your observation about it?
Emily: I mean, what I'm hearing is, like, uh, this hypothesis will age well: I just think this is going to be another area where lawmakers are going to totally miss the boat. Like, the technology is going to advance way faster than they're able to catch up to it. Like, I've tried to engage congressional aides, you know, staff on the Hill in conversations about the metaverse, which I barely understand, [chuckles] and which they definitely [chuckles] don't have time to understand.
Emily: And all of the issues that we see with like social media, like speech, like bias, like, y’know, algorithmic discrimination. Those things will have some kind of life in the metaverse, but it's, y’know, we're so far behind always when it comes to policy. So I, I mean, I think this is going to be the next big regulatory area, like, y’know, like, uh, 20 years or something, the FTC might sue Facebook for, sorry, might sue Meta for [chuckles], y’know, the ways they haven't protected consumers and their slice of the metaverse but I don't think anyone in Washington is thinking seriously about it in terms of policymakers and regulators.
Niki: I also think that that's probably complicated a little bit by the fact that metaverse to me sounds a little bit, like, well, add AI and come back to me. [Emily: Yeah] [both chuckle] Like, I see it, all of these, I think Nike was talking about the metaverse. [Emily: Yeah] And I do, again, I'll say this, is what I'm in favor of for the metaverse. I think it's fine for gaming. Listen, are kids addicted to it, for sure. [Emily: Yeah] But that's another topic for another day, but I think it's okay for entertainment. I think it's, probably makes a lot of sense if you can find an enterprise use so that if you are on different sides of the country or world, you can have a better engagement than just being on zoom in your living room. Maybe that's useful, but I am not trying to plug myself into a Mark Zuckerberg dominated [chuckles] three-dimensional world [Emily: Yeah] where I'm not paying attention to the things around me. But, famous last words, ask me in 20 years! [Emily: Totally] What would your avatar look like?
Emily: Oh! I want my, I mean, I, I get a kick out of, like, making any avatar that kind of looks like me. Like, little curly hair and, like, small and, like, what, like y’know, have you ever had your friends try to make your avatar? And then you're like, oh my God, is that what I look like?
Niki: Oh my gosh, no! I don't want them to! [Emily: laughs] Yours would have a backpack and a cat.
Emily: Yeah! [both laugh] [seriously] Two cats.
Niki: Yes! Mine would have a cat too [Emily: laughs], probably not a backpack. I'm not asking anyone to tell me what my avatar would look like. [Emily: laughs] I know! Thank you so much for coming on today.
Emily: Thank you for having me. What a nice [pause] thing, like, you are doing a wonderful, exciting thing with this podcast.
Niki: Yeah! I mean, the idea is just to talk about things that people don't really understand at a, y’know, high level, and then- you're in the mix. You're going to be reporting on this. So Emily Birnbaum, follow her, see what she's up to. People are quaking in their boots about what she's writing, and she's writing about Meta, [Emily: chuckles] formerly known as Facebook. [Emily: Right] Thanks for coming on.
Emily: Thanks so much.
Niki: Next week, we’ll continue our Crypto 101 series in a conversation on web3 with Sheila Warren from the World Economic Forum. Be sure to follow Tech’ed Up wherever you get your podcasts. New episodes come out every Thursday.