A year ago on Friday, Mark Zuckerberg made a big bet on the virtual world, announcing that his company name would be changed from Facebook to Meta.
The move cost his company billions of dollars, and the panic among the “meta-entrepreneurs” who have flocked to the company’s virtual world to make real-world income is easily forgiven.
But some remain unphased.
“It was an incredibly positive experience and one of the best experiences of my life,” said Aaron Sorrels, 47, a professional comedian who opened Horizon Worlds, Meta’s flagship Metaverse platform, last year. A virtual comedy club.
Meta’s latest quarterly earnings report shows that the company’s Metaverse unit has lost $9.4 billion this year. Zuckerberg said he expects those losses to continue to mount as he continues his work on building the metaverse, despite heightened investor concerns about the lack of progress.
Horizon Worlds has reportedly struggled to attract and retain users: It currently has fewer than 200,000 monthly active users, less than half its goal of 500,000, according to the Wall Street Journal.
On Thursday, CNBC described Meta’s “shocking debacle” — dropping the company out of the 20 largest U.S. companies in valuation amid three straight quarters of declining revenue. (Meta did not immediately respond to CNBC Make It’s request for comment.)
Those dismal numbers haven’t deterred the enthusiasm of creators like Sorrels.
‘Good Engagement’ and Faith in Zuckerberg
Horizon Worlds may not have millions of users, but Sorrells said traffic to his soapstone comedy club has been relatively steady, where amateurs and professionals perform daily.
In his last full week at the club, Sorrells said he welcomed a total of 15,000 subscribers, who stayed on average for 20 minutes.
“It’s really good engagement and engagement with the club,” he said. “And then more importantly, the people I’m talking to who are really deeply involved in what we’re doing.”
Audience members use Meta’s recently added monetization tools to make in-app purchases, including what Sorrels calls “applause credits” — a compliment to performers. People can also pay $9.99 to permanently add their usernames to Soapstone’s virtual “supporter wall.”
Sorrels shares the proceeds of any in-app purchases with Meta, which could account for nearly 50% of those sales. The performers didn’t get a cut, not even the applause.
Soapstone isn’t the Sorrels’ main source of income: The Grand Rapids, Michigan-based comedian still performs real-life comedy shows under the moniker “The Unemployed Drunkard.”
But he did make some money from the metaverse. Sorrells declined to give exact numbers, but noted that his minimum expenses mostly consist of paying developers to help build virtual experiences.
“In terms of time, there is a lot of personal investment,” he said.
He made that commitment because of one man: Zuckerberg. The billionaire’s vision for virtual worlds, and the $10 billion he’s spent on developing the metaverse over the past year, “really blows my mind,” Sorels said.
“Companies like this don’t just do it because they think it’s going to make a difference,” he added. “They do it because they know it’s going to make a difference.”
Live full-time in a virtual world
Some people do already live full-time in the metaverse.
Alexis Dimas, 37, a Metaverse creator living in Santa Ana, California, said he joined the beta version of Horizon Worlds nearly two years ago. He said he taught himself how to build “worlds” in virtual games using the platform’s developer kit.
Dimas, who is not a computer software developer, said he has published more than 25 different worlds on Meta’s platform, ranging from karaoke-style singing competition venues to a venue called a “flying bridge,” where your avatar crosses a high High bridge in the Himalayas.
Each world includes in-app purchases for Dimas and Meta. Dimas also advertises himself as a paid consultant for other Horizon World creators.
That’s enough money to be his “primary source of income,” Dimas said, declining to give specific figures but noting that it’s enough to cover his rent and typical monthly bills.
He also said he hasn’t personally witnessed any of the retention issues Meta has reported.
“In terms of Horizon Worlds losing users, I haven’t seen or seen that. I mean, I can barely get into the lobby area without a bunch of people coming to me and asking me questions,” he said. “The places I go are always packed.”
Dimas said he understands that some of the other criticisms of Horizon Worlds, especially those centered on cartoon graphics, are seen as inferior to those on other virtual platforms.
“the fact is [the avatars] Not having any legs or anything, it ruins some of the experience,” he said.
Still, Dimas said he’s optimistic that Meta will continue to improve the experience and that the tech giant’s future products will attract more users.
His livelihood depends on it.
Zuckerberg: “I appreciate patience”
On Wednesday’s Meta earnings call, Zuckerberg told investors that Meta can weather its problems and that its investment in the Metaverse will ultimately pay off.
“We’re taking on the fees because we believe they provide greater returns over time,” he said, adding: “I appreciate the patience and I think those who are patient and invest with us People will be rewarded.”