Meta is losing billions, but people are making real-life money in the metaverse: 'It's been an incredibly positive experience'
A year ago on Friday, Mark Zuckerberg made a huge bet on the metaverse, announcing his company's name change from Facebook to Meta.
The move has resulted in billions of dollars in losses for his company, and the "metaverse entrepreneurs" who flocked to the company's virtual world to make real-life money could be easily forgiven for panicking.
But some remain unfazed.
"It's been an incredibly positive experience, and one of the best in my life," says Aaron Sorrels, a 47-year-old professional comedian who opened a virtual comedy club in Meta's flagship metaverse platform, Horizon Worlds, last year.
Meta's latest quarterly earnings report revealed that the company's metaverse division has lost $9.4 billion this year already. Zuckerberg said he expects those losses to keep piling up as he continues the work of building out the metaverse, even as investors' concerns mount over a 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 "stunning collapse" — one that's seen the company fall out of the 20 largest U.S. companies by valuation amid a streak of three straight quarters of revenue declines. (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 a belief in Zuckerberg
Horizon Worlds may not have millions of users, but Sorrels says a relatively steady stream of people visit his Soapstone Comedy Club, where amateurs and professionals perform daily.
In the club's last full week, Sorrels says he welcomed a total of 15,000 users, who stayed for 20 minutes on average.
"That's real good engagement and involvement in the club," he says. "And then even more importantly than that, the people that I'm talking to, they're really engaging deeply with 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 sort of pat on the back for performers. People can also pay $9.99 to get their username permanently added to the Soapstone's virtual "supporter wall."
Sorrels shares the proceeds of any in-app purchases with Meta, which can take up to a nearly 50% cut of those sales. The performers don't receive a cut, even from the applause credits.
The Soapstone isn't Sorrels' primary source of income: The Grand Rapids, Michigan-based comedian still performs real-life comedy shows under the moniker "The Unemployed Alcoholic."
But he does make some money from the metaverse. Sorrels declined to reveal exact figures, but notes that his minimal expenses mostly included paying a developer to help build the virtual experience.
"There's been ... an incredible amount of personal investment time-wise," he says.
He's made that commitment because of one man: Zuckerberg. The billionaire's vision of virtual worlds, along with the $10 billion he's spent on metaverse development over the past year, "really struck me," Sorrels says.
"A company like that doesn't just do that because they think it's going to be something," he adds. "They do that because they know it's going to be something."
Making a full-time living in the metaverse
Some people do already make a full-time living in the metaverse.
Alexis Dimas, a 37-year-old metaverse creator based in Santa Ana, California, says he joined Horizon Worlds in beta nearly two years ago. He taught himself how to build "worlds" in the virtual game himself using the platform's developer toolkit, he says.
Dimas, who isn't a computer software developer by trade, says he's published more than 25 different worlds on Meta's platform, from a karaoke-style singing competition venue to one called "Skybridge," where your virtual avatar walks across a bridge high in the Himalayas mountain range.
Each world includes in-app purchases that go to both Dimas and Meta. Dimas also advertises himself as a paid consultant for other Horizon World creators.
That money is enough to be his "main source of income," Dimas says, declining to share exact figures but noting that it covers his rent and typical monthly bills.
He also says he hasn't personally witnessed any of Meta's reported user retention struggles.
"As far as Horizon Worlds losing users, I haven't witnessed that or seen that. I mean, I can barely go into the lobby area without a bunch of people coming up to me and asking me questions," he says. "It's just always packed everywhere I go."
Dimas says he understands some of the other Horizon Worlds criticisms, especially the ones centering around cartoonish graphics seen as inferior to those on other virtual platforms.
"The fact that [the avatars] don't have any legs, or anything, it kind of ruins some of the experience," he says.
Still, Dimas says he's optimistic that Meta will continue to improve the experience, and that the tech giant's future offerings will attract more users going forward.
His livelihood depends on it.
Zuckerberg: 'I appreciate the patience'
On Wednesday's Meta earnings call, Zuckerberg told investors that Meta could weather its problems and that its investments in the metaverse will eventually be fruitful.
"We're taking on expenses because we believe that they're going to provide greater returns over time," he said, adding: "I appreciate the patience, and I think that those who are patient and invest with us will be rewarded."
Like Zuckerberg, Sorrels and Dimas may be somewhat incentivized to paint a rosy picture of their experiences on Horizon Worlds. If they say it's going well, they might get more people to join, helping them make more money.
Dimas says he sees building worlds on Meta's platform as his full-time career for the foreseeable future. Sorrels is partnering with DryBar comedy to bring a series of professional touring comedians — including Drew Lynch, Pinky Patel and Bob Smiley — to the Soapstone.
Sorrels says he expects those virtual shows will be shared "far and wide," bringing a whole new audience to his virtual establishment and the metaverse.
"Early adopters are figuring out ways to create this metaverse economy," he says. "As that takes hold, I think we're going to see a lot more people then come in. And it'll be a self-perpetuating thing."
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