Discussing Facebook with people who know me always reminds me of that Conan O'Brian joke he told the graduating class at Harvard about how for the rest of their lives, whenever they do something stupid they will inevitable hear the words "...and you went to Harvard?!" as if doing so should exclude you from all stupidity for life.
Because -- and here is the disclaimer -- my girlfriend works at Facebook, so in my case it is always "...but your girlfriend works at Facebook" if I have anything but a negative opinion about the place. To answer the common follow-up question, no, I don't know anything at all about Facebook that supersedes the knowledge of your average tech-news reader. But my limited attachment to Facebook does need to be said ahead of time so that if you can't possibly trust me to present an unbiased opinion, you can save yourself the time and stop reading here.
All disclaimers aside, what I did want to write about was Facebook's newest acquisition of Oculus Rift and the reaction by the media and investment pundits who seem to signal this more as a CEO out of control than a company that -- I believe -- appears to have a very obvious plan in mind.
To explain, let's back up a bit. In 1992, Neil Stephenson published the book Snow Crash. I'm not sure when I first read it, but if I had to guess it was 1998 or so. The story itself is not my favorite, but the first 100 pages were absolutely unbelievable to me. In it, Stephenson outlines with a large amount of detail how a futuristic virtual world would operate, even down to the placement of advertising. Stephenson's vision seemed so complete that ever since I read it I've personally been boring anyone who would listen about how obvious the possibilities and economic rewards would be for the company who built a successful version of this world.
More recently -- and way more entertaining -- one could read the book Ready Player One for a further view into the finer details of what is feasible when it comes to virtual worlds and their ability to connect everyone, no matter their socioeconomic status. I'm sure there are more books about this, but science fiction isn't really my thing so please excuse me if my references aren't the greatest examples.
My point in bringing these up in relation to Facebook's purchase of Oculus Rift is my belief that someone at Facebook also realizes the possibilities and the importance as a company to look forward. Sure, understanding why people would want to strap a computer to their head and disappear for a while is confusing for many, including me as it is nothing I'm interested in doing either. But judging by the Oculus Rift community and their ability to raise over $2 million from 10,000 people on Kickstarter should tell you that people are definitely interested. Furthermore, looking at that same community's heated reaction to the acquisition shows us that they are also passionately and emotionally invested in the product.
Of course, Facebook is a long, long way from making a successful virtual world with heavily engaged users, but if anyone has the infrastructure to make it happen it would seem a company with over one billion logged on users and a lot of money might be a really good start. Pair that with owning the best hardware to date and you can see why maybe now isn't the time to write this all off to reckless spending.
Personally, I have no idea if it will work. I only have an opinion I've held since first reading Snow Crash that there is a lot of incentive in making a virtual world a literal reality. Of course you could point to other tepid attempts, like Second Life, to demonstrate that it won't work, but even with their limited resources, embarrassingly sparse world, and closed environment, Second Life was able to gain a respectable amount of highly active users. (Life 2.0 is a great documentary on Second Life if you'd like to know more.)
Though ultimately, at its worst this is -- as many believe -- just a hasty and foolish purchase by a company who by cursory glances appears to be spending recklessly on anything and everything. Although conversely, this could be the acquisition that seals Facebook's fate as the top company of the future, a possibility that any investor would be remiss to consider after evaluating what is most likely the train of thought of those making the decisions at Facebook.
And on the possible chance this is what they are thinking and it does work -- in perfect unison with their internet.org global partnership -- the implications are almost unimaginable to anyone but the most astute science fiction author.
But don't listen to me, just read Snow Crash and Ready Player One and come to your own conclusions about the possibilities of a future where virtual worlds generate the lion's share of ad revenue for their invested companies.