Chris Cox, the chief product officer at Facebook (now rebranded Meta), said he welcomed “difficult conversations” around the social media giant’s future as he gave a sceptical audience a glimpse into the metaverse.
Cox defended Mark Zuckerberg, a close friend, from mounting criticism spiralling around the $1 trillion company he built as Meta stakes a $10 billion claim on its vision for the future of the internet.
Appearing via videolink from California, Cox told thousands gathered in Lisbon for the Web Summit expo: “It’s been a tough period for the company, a difficult period, but there’s not a more important set of questions for us to be answering right now.
“It’s good for us and it’s good for society. We are not perfect. This is not going to be easy, and it shouldn’t be. We need to move beyond soundbites and get into the science.
“What is hate speech, how does it play out in various regions, when does it lead to violence? These are timeless questions.
“That’s why we’ve been calling for regulation specifically around areas of enforcement of content standards. It would be good to have these established and canonised in law.”
The furore around the leak of tens of thousands of internal documents by whistleblower Frances Haugen, who claims they show Facebook putting profit before user safety, has overshadowed its corporate rebrand.
But Cox, one of Facebook’s first employees who left the company in 2019 only to return a year later, remains confident in the future of the metaverse - a sci-fi style VR-enhanced world where people can interact in 3D on screen.
Responding to criticism that its current capabilities render users looking more cartoons, he likened the evolution of the technology to that of mobile phones, from 1990s bricks, to Blackberries to the iPhone.
He said: “Remember that scene in Clueless [the 1990s Alicia Silverstone movie] where everybody is laughing at her cellphone? There’s always a few attempts that are too soon. It starts, it’s a little awkward, not everything’s right but there is a progression.
“In terms of the graphics, we have folks from Industrial Light and Magic working on the next generation of this stuff.
“People are exhausted by video conferencing. The fact you don’t know who’s looking at who is not how we are designed to operate. We’re constantly interrupting each other, it’s not good for groups, there’s all sorts of things that are weird about it.
“Video conferencing is not where we will be in 30 years. The question is what will be the bridge from here to there.”
Cox said he hosts meetings for his team using the metaverse, and recently attended a stand-up comedy gig performed by one of his engineers.
He said: “Watching comedy alone on a screen is not like being in a room of people, laughing together. It felt like the start of something new. Like being in a room with people who are hundreds of thousands of miles away.“
Facebook’s current difficulties are prompting questions over how dominant its role should be in the future of the web.
Cox said: “What we are trying to do is to start to have the conversation industry-wide. We are not going to build this alone, it will emerge probably along the lines the internet emerged with a set of standards and protocols all developed out in the open.”
He concluded: “In 2006 most people thought social media was a joke. Today we are in a very different position. There are a lot more people paying attention and scrutinising the benefits and the harms. That’s the best thing that could happen for technology. “