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From Facebook to META, what are the stakes for Africa?

The announcement by Facebook to change its name to Meta takes place in a very tense context for the Californian company, with actions and complaints from European Union consumer groups, but also after a series of breakdowns, and the “Facebook Files” scandal, accusations made by a whistleblower that Facebook is doing everything possible to get teenagers hooked on social media ….

By Mohamed Zoghlami

Everyone is wondering, is Facebook trying to get out of the turbulent times it is going through by creating a diversion?

Certainly, the group is weakened, its model is strongly criticized, changing its name does not change the reality…

Beyond the change of Facebook’s name, which is not just cosmetic, it is therefore the new strategy, vision that questions? The future Internet is linked to this announcement. Facebook promises to take us into a virtual world never explored before.

By being the first to communicate so intensely on the Metaverse, by citing record investments in billions of USD, by wanting to hire 10,000 engineers in Europe, Mark Zuckerberg is taking a stand, and he states it loud and clear….

How should we view it? We have to be realistic, and look beyond the name, if this idea seems disproportionate today, crazy, sometimes bordering on science fiction when we see the video presentations of the launch, what will it be tomorrow? 

Remember, a few years ago, what we thought about mobile telephony, the Internet and their consequences on social bonds…

A company of the future, a company of Metaverse

By revealing his new group logo, an icon reminiscent of a blue infinity symbol, and naming the new Group Meta, meaning “beyond” in Greek, Mark Zuckerberg is reorganizing his group to focus on his goal, the Metaverse.

“Right now, our brand is so closely tied to a product that it can’t represent everything we do today, let alone in the future,” Zuckerberg said.

In 2015, Google had completely restructured under a holding company called Alphabet, after a series of acquisitions, ambitions and new businesses, … and Meta will only involve the group.

Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp will remain unchanged. 

By Meta, they are trying to make the area forget the current setbacks, to cut off the negative reputation of Facebook so that Oculus, Instagram, WhatsApp, etc. are not associated with the same social and regulatory crisis and project themselves into what could be a real “technological revolution”, the Metaverse.

The Metaverse is a kind of digital duplicate of the physical world, accessible via the Internet. Meta, “beyond” in Greek, and “verse” for the English “universe”. 

As futuristic as it may seem, the concept of “Metaverse” is not new, this ultra-connected and interactive network first appeared in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 science fiction novel “Snow Crash”.

It designates a three-dimensional virtual space, in which one can evolve and exchange, via an avatar or a hologram, notably thanks to augmented reality and virtual reality. The film “Ready Player One”, directed in 2018 by Steven Spielberg and inspired by the eponymous novel by Ernest Cline, also makes extensive reference to it. 

The underlying, implicit idea is to generate a virtual universe that is entirely digital but connected to the real world. The latter allows us to interact by generating all kinds of activities, games, entertainment, work, buy digital goods or services, go to a virtual concert, travel online, buy and try on digital clothes….

What is Facebook’s vision?

By investing no less than 10 billion dollars on this digital double of the physical world, accessible via the Internet, Mark Zuckerberg is betting to relaunch his social network Facebook whose model, besides being strongly criticized, seems to stagnate.

If Facebook hopes to multiply human interactions, by freeing them from physical constraints, via the Internet and to revolutionize consumer habits, this cannot be done by altruism and disinterestedness.

Despite its 3 billion subscribers and its valuation of 780 billion USD, Facebook seems to teeter.

The most used social network in the world is more and more competed by new fun and playful apps that seduce millennials, such as TikTok, Instagram. Facebook has aged and so has its audience, young people are slowly moving away from it, threatening its profitability.

By putting forward Meta, Mark Zuckerberg is gradually freeing himself from Facebook, he seems to want to focus on his current obsession with virtual reality and the Metaverse, with a more futuristic, attractive, but also more risky vision.

In this vision, everything is focused on video games, positive social relationships and culture, far from what Facebook is today.

By creating this fully connected virtual world, by wishing to promote new forms of social interaction, by freeing himself from physical constraints, Mark Zuckerberg does not simply want to create a new formidable experience, but also “an economic wave that could promote opportunities for people all over the world”, multiply new services, especially e-commerce, where brands, companies will be able to sell virtual goods, services, with in the back of their minds new sources of income, at a time when targeted advertising, which is the lifeblood of the group, is more and more regulated. 

In his decision to change the name, Mark Zuckerberg saw opportunities for growth, and is repositioning Facebook beyond just a social network, but as a technology company of the future. “From now on, we’re going to be Metaverse first, not Facebook first,” he said. “I hope people around the world come to know the Meta brand and the future we stand for.”

But behind all these announcements around the Metaverse, a game of liar’s poker is also being played. Indeed, other players and not the least, video game and social media giants have been fighting for the attention of Internet users for years. Isn’t Meta part of this new trend and making up for lost time by investing heavily?

But above all, Meta is betting that tomorrow access to the net will no longer be through PC as it was yesterday, nor through smartphone as it is today, but through glasses or other connected objects manufactured and marketed by Meta.

Does the Metaverse look like Facebook’s vision?

The project presented by Facebook is far from being unanimously accepted throughout the world, the technological utopia has difficulty convincing, but who knows what the future holds?

Mark Zuckerberg was keen to stress that the Metaverse “is not limited to a single company, and each of us is needed to make it happen”.

Indeed, many companies have begun to lay the groundwork for parallel universes where users can lead a second life of their own. Virtual worlds, but with an economy as such and leading to real income.

The digital worlds imagined by Sandbox and Decentraland allow developers and players to earn money for themselves, are built on cryptocurrency and more open than Meta.

On Decentraland using the crypto MANA, one can buy clothes, houses and decorate them with collectors’ items. In late September, Snoop Dogg partnered with The Sandbox to rebuild his real-life mansion on the platform’s NFT metaverse.

The monetization of these spaces is starting to spawn Metaverse real estate companies, the first being Metaverse Property. 

Travis Scott’s Fortnite concert in April 2020, and its estimated 27.7 million viewers, which generated more than $5 billion in revenue, or that of singer Ariana Grande that brought together no less than 78 million people on a virtual auditorium, help to realize the reach and therefore the potential monetization of this virtual world dreamed by Facebook.

Epic Games had announced last spring that it had raised a billion dollars dedicated to developing its vision of the Metaverse, competing head-on with Roblox, another video game company. The latter, taking advantage of the COVID crisis, sees more than 40 million users logging on daily (twice as many as two years ago), many of them minors.

Minecraft sometimes does the same and notably offered, to its players, an electronic music event with several hundred DJs in June 2020, and on Animal Crossing, there had been graduation ceremonies.

What makes Fortnite, Roblox and Minecraft so interesting and strong is that they are not linear like traditional games and offer multiple possibilities for players to visit spaces and universes created by gamers themselves.  

Roblox’s vision is to create an immersive shared platform where millions of 3D experiences can be lived, whether it’s for learning, working, playing, creating or socializing.

Through the voice of Satya Nadella, Microsoft has indicated that in addition to the development of Minecraft, it has positioned itself on the “enterprise Metaverse” without giving more details, but which underlines the group’s essence and “B to B” strategy.

Nvidia, for its part, says that its ambition is to “bring together 3D worlds in a common virtual universe” via its Omniverse platform, which will be launched in 2020.

The Metaverse is already standing out as a showcase of choice for companies. 

Luxury brands are already in the race for virtual assets. On Roblox, a virtual space called “Gucci Garden” was available and Gucci also released a limited edition of virtual bags in the game, which sold for over $4,000.

Therefore, while the pandemic has democratized long-distance human relationships, and games based on the creation of a virtual world, it has also commoditized the use of virtual currencies. The emergence of crypto-currencies could also play a key role in the development of the Metaverse, notably via NFTs.

Mainbot, a French start-up incubated at Polytechnique, has just announced the creation of its own Metaverse, the Winkyverse. Its ambition is to create a digital universe to introduce children to still unknown technologies such as blockchain, cryptocurrency or NFT.

If the Metaverse is where people spend time, then that’s where the real economy will want to be. The war to design the or one of the reference Metaverses is just beginning….

Is the Metaverse a universal concept?

According to a recent report by Bloomberg Intelligence, the metaverse could become a $800-billion market by 2024, and it’s easy to see why it’s not just Facebook that’s working on a Metaverse project.

It’s no coincidence that the Metaverse has gained popularity and interest, the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly restricted activities in the physical world, leading to an increased demand for the virtual world. 

And this virtual world that allows people to roam the globe from their armchairs foreshadows what some people hope to see in the post-pandemic era. 

Alibaba, the Chinese shopping platform, has registered several trademarks such as Ali Metaverse, Taobao Metaverse, as has Tencent, the chinese leader in video games, which in early September registered Timi Metaverse, Kings Metaverse and even invested in Wave, a virtual concert organizer.

The Metaverse seems to generate a real craze among Chinese technology companies, which shows that the subject is interesting.

Kuaishou (a video sharing application similar to TikTok), iQiyi (owned by Baidu) and Li Auto, an electric car manufacturer, have also registered their own trademarks in China. ByteDance (TikTok) acquired a virtual reality company called Pico for $772 million.

Roblox and Tencent announced a strategic partnership in 2019 to help power the next generation of Chinese creators. 

Becoming the pioneer of such a market could well allow any company to position itself as the leader in the virtual world.

But there is already a major problem for these companies, as China aims to reduce the addiction to games and ban crypto-currencies, knowing that the first Metaverse was built on these two main elements. 

The data security law that came into effect in China increases the government’s control over the digital sector. 

According to The Korea Times, South Korea’s Minister of Information and Communication Technology has rallied 17 leading companies to work together on the creation of new technologies to launch a Metaverse and has allocated 7 billion euros to them.

These companies and industry groups will work together to study and compare different trends and technologies related to Metavers, while examining the ethical and cultural issues of the market. In parallel, various projects will be launched jointly with the support of the ministry. 

The Japanese social network GREE has also announced the launch of its Metaverse activity, Europe will not be left out, but what about Africa?

Which place for Africa in Facebook’s vision of the Metaverse?

In my previous article (Will Africa embrace the Metaverse?) published in ANA, I looked at what an African Metaverse could be.

But here, I will focus on Mark Zuckerberg’s vision, its consequences and its stakes for the continent.

A first point quickly drew my attention, Facebook wants to hire 10,000 engineers in Europe to develop its project, knowing that Europe will experience a shortage of 500,000 digital jobs per year in the coming years according to Digital Skills and Jobs Coalition which indicate that thousands of offers in digital technology are currently unfilled. Therefore, where to find these engineers?

If Facebook and American companies attract the best skilled people, it is clear that Europe will come looking for African talent and skilled workers as it does today, once again to the detriment of a key sector for African development.

Why continue to invest in human capital, if we cannot retain and attract African talents, an important lever for the successful digital transformation of the continent.

Africa needs to create jobs in numbers to reap the benefits of the demographic dividend linked to a high working age population. 

So, if the Internet offers the possibility to work remotely, let’s fight for big international companies to create jobs on the continent, working together is a good way to transfer technology to Africa. 

The Metaverse is likely to generate a huge increase in energy consumption, telecommunication and data exchange, resulting in greenhouse gas emissions.

Digital technology alone is expected to consume 20% of the world’s electricity by 2025 and account for 14% of greenhouse gas emissions by 2040, contributing to global warming, the consequences of which are already disproportionately felt in Africa.

As with all emerging technologies, it is important to take into account the societal and political implications of the Metaverse as well as the ways in which populations may be affected in varying ways by the deployment of this virtual universe.

This raises the question of the acceptance and adaptation of the Metaverse to the African context. What uses should be deployed, what are the productive advantages and the societal impact?

How to integrate this concept, when the priority of African states is elsewhere, focused on the urgent needs of health, agriculture, education, transportation, social and financial inclusion?

To penetrate this immersive universe, reliable and inexpensive equipment is needed, which is not the case today, since virtual reality, although essential for Meta, is almost non-existent on the continent where few services are offered. A few initiatives have emerged, such as the Fak’ugesi Festival in South Africa, the DigiArt Living Lab in Tunisia, the AR/VR Africa Community which brings together “content creators, enthusiasts, creatives, developers and technologists who want to make a difference with virtual and augmented reality.

Many startups have also launched in virtual reality applications to promote cultural tourism, museum visits and reconstruction of archaeological sites in 3D.

Moreover, Africans are rather concerned about the issue of the huge data that will be generated by this new online world linked to social media and video game giants.

Africa may become an extractive industry for GAFAM and BATX…

Aware that the Metaverse will not be built overnight, and that Facebook will need partners to make it more interoperable, Mark Zuckerberg has decided to invest $50 million in Metaverse projects for emerging countries.

Facebook has partnered with such organizations as Africa No Filter, Electric South and Imisi3D on an immersive digital storytelling project called “Amplifying African Voices.

But, despite its difficulties, Africa always manages to innovate. Hence, Africarare, South Africa’s first Metaverse, has just been launched. This exciting immersive 3D virtual reality experience brings a whole new Metaverse market that will showcase the best of African creativity and provide a new platform for African artists. 

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