Facebook has reason to be worried. Market research company eMarketer discovered that US adults spend on average one minute a day less on Facebook in 2018 than they did in 2017, from 38 minutes down to 37 minutes. While the decline of one minute might not seem like a big deal, it’s indicative of a trend where users in Europe and the US (Facebook’s most lucrative market) have stopped looking at Facebook as a place where they can network, socialize, and connect with their friends and families.
This decline is further shown in other studies. The Brussels Times reported that active Belgian Facebook users had declined by 7.3%, down from 7.5 million in February 2019 to 6.8 million in August the same year. Another study by the Guardian found out that Facebook likes, shares, and posts have dropped by almost 20% ever since the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke in March 2018.
While people seem to be moving away from Facebook, they tend to remain in the Facebook ecosystem. WhatsApp is the largest messaging platform in the world, with 1.5 billion monthly active users, and people spend more time than ever before on Instagram. So it’s not all bad news.
Regardless, Facebook earns most of its revenue from its flagship app; if people are spending less time there, advertisers might move their ads and their money elsewhere. Considering that Facebook has struggled to monetize WhatsApp and Instagram’s revenue is still a fraction of Facebook’s total revenue, the company is looking for new avenues to stay relevant.
Enter Facebook Horizon
Mark Zuckerberg announced Horizon during the Oculus Connect 6 conference in San Jose last September. Horizon is a VR sandbox universe where you can build your own environments and games, play and socialize with friends, and explore user-generated landscapes. Second Life in VR, if you will.
This is a really smart move of Facebook and I believe it might be the lifeline they need. Long-time readers of the OneBonsai Medium blog will remember that I’ve written about social VR as the future of social media before. In that article, I dedicated a sentence to Facebook Spaces, which was Facebook’s VR platform at the time, but which never really took off. Facebook has realized this and is shutting down Spaces (as well as Oculus Rooms) on the 25th of October 2019.
While Spaces was more of a room where you could hang out in VR with a limited number of your Facebook friends, Horizon is an entire world where you can watch movies, play multiplayer games, consume other types of media, etc… Horizon will be a much bigger experience than Spaces ever was.
While you’ll have significant freedom to build and do whatever you want, you’ll need to stay within the rules and the spirit of Horizon. Facebook emphasized that a Horizon citizen is “friendly, inclusive, and curious.” The world will be populated with Horizon Locals, who are there to help with technical and safety issues. I’m assuming that the Locals will be valued community members or even Facebook employees protecting people from trolls who create harmful or destructive content.
Horizon will launch in closed beta early 2020. Considering that players can build whatever they want, the sandbox game is likely to become more diverse and interesting as more players start playing it and making their own creations. Although I’m personally not a huge fan of the cartoony graphics, I’m curious to see what games, structures, and worlds people will come up with.
It’s a Long-Term Plan
Let’s face it, of Facebook’s 2.41 billion monthly active users, only a teeny tiny fraction will have a VR device (1% at best?). Of that tiny fraction, an even smaller fraction will be interested in visiting Horizon and coming back frequently. Additionally, Facebook is up against stiff competition from already established social VR platforms such as VRChat and AltSpaceVR, but also from games such as Minecraft VR and possibly even from Fortnite if they ever decide to add a VR mode.
In a way, that’s why I like Horizon. I too had long grown bored of the main Facebook app, but this is something exciting. It’s something I can get behind, something I’m curious to try out. It’s a long-term bet, not a short-term fix that attempts to stem their declining usage (although I’m sure they’re looking for those too). Combine Horizon with Facebook’s excellent Oculus Quest and you have the foundations of a plan to become the largest social VR platform.