As it was heavily rumored during the last few days, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg finally announced the rebranding of his company to “Meta”, the vague term used for anything describing itself as “what comes next”. Zuckerberg himself claimed that he hopes Meta “will be seen as a metaverse company over time”, as “the name Facebook doesn’t fully encompass everything the company does now”. The controversial CEO essentially drew parallels between the Meta rebranding and what Google did in 2015, rebranding itself as “Alphabet” in order to encompass all that company’s other activities beyond Google Search.
In a way, he is right: Facebook is more than just Facebook nowadays. His company owns Instagram and Whatsapp since 2012 and 2014 respectively, it dabbles in virtual reality with the Oculus platform it bought in 2014, it has even released its own hardware in the form of the Portal trio of products. There’s talk about Facebook releasing a smartwatch, smart glasses and augmented reality glasses, there’s the ongoing research in artificial intelligence and its use in Web 3.0 services, as well as those plans of bringing Internet connectivity to the developing world. It’s a lot.
The thing is: Meta’s CEO is, and will be, Facebook’s CEO. That is a problem.
So what is this “Metaverse” you’re talking about, Mark?
It is a tech term as all-encompassing and as vague as they come. Up until now, it’s been used to describe things as diverse as PS3’s PlayStation Home, the Fortnite events, persistent-world video games in general, virtual reality environments, holographic projection, 3D-avatar based group chats and conferencing, different combinations of the above… you get the idea.
Or… you don’t, maybe, and nobody’s going to blame you really. It’s all rather convoluted. Remember back in the day — say, around the end of last century — when the media used to call any digital environment — not necessarily a connected one — “cyberspace” even if it was nothing like what William Gibson first sketched out in the Neuromancer? Remember when The Matrix gave “cyberspace” some context? Or when all those idiots that kept calling *the Web* “cyberspace”? Ah, good times. Well, that’s what the Metaverse is right now: a concept barely grasped, described differently depending who you ask, that will not take the shape of actual “products” (most of which will probably be services) for another decade or so.
Zuckerberg claims that Meta will strive to give the Metaverse meaning for billions of people by building all the underlying tech required and several different services on top of it. He calls Meta “a social technology company” in the sense that “it builds technology to connect”. During yesterday’s keynote, for instance, there were several examples of commonplace ways of communicating today, such as chat or video conferencing, enriched by augmented reality products or VR environments. What these will look like when actually launched at some point in the future is anybody’s guess, but in 2021 that does not matter at all. Which is, unfortunately, the whole point of announcing Meta now.
Timing is everything and Meta’s is convenient
So why now? Zuckerberg maintains that he’s been thinking of rebranding Facebook as far as back as 2014, when he bought Whatsapp, so now might seem as good a time as any. That may or may not be true, but — whatever the case may be — it still does not answer the question “why now?” in any meaningful way. Because “now”, in the sense of the current news cycle, is a time that company could really, really use a distraction from all the heat it’s been under after the release of the “Facebook Papers”.
These refer to the extensive internal documents whistleblower and former Facebook employee Frances Haugen leaked to a number of high-profile publications, revealing a number of embarrassing, troublesome and downright infuriating facts about the company. Facebook is still reeling in the aftermath of many of those revelations, some of which seem to have re-opened discussions within the American government about regulating Facebook and/or breaking up the company.
The Facebook Papers, if nothing else, prove that this company’s main product still works in the same way it’s been accused of operating during the last 5 years: it puts high profits before democracy, public safety, privacy, mental health and, well, everything else really. Zuckerberg and company are fully aware of the negative effects Facebook has on society and they just do not care: as long as “engagement” means “boatloads of money”, the now-proven side effects of misinformation, hate speech, preferential moderation and other problems present on the platform do not concern them. Simple as that.
Rebranding is fooling nobody as long as Zuckerberg calls the shots
What this Meta rebranding really is, then, is equal parts an ambitious promise, an obvious diversion and an attempt at damage control — in this case, an attempt to contain the spread of Facebook’s poisonous reputation to the company’s other products or services, present or future. Facebook’s name is tainted. What Zuckerberg seems to be going for — instead of actually trying to fix Facebook, since he clearly has no intention to — is to make the troubled service look like just one of his products in the eyes of consumers who now distrust it. They will only be hearing about “Meta’s plans for Facebook” from now on as if Meta is a different company with a different culture or history. Or a different leader.
And therein lies the biggest problem of all: Mark Zuckerberg. The young billionaire knows that Facebook will remain Meta’s main product — and earner — for years to come. He also knows that this impression of a “separate” Facebook among other Meta products is misleading in practice: just like he’s now doing with Instagram and Whatsapp, he will always be trying to leverage Facebook’s vast user base to “help” other services (read: help their bottom line) regardless of what consumers would prefer.
So, for all intents and purposes, this Facebook/Meta rebranding is a PR stunt through and through. As long as the person ultimately responsible for what Facebook has become is still calling the shots in Meta — Zuckerberg has seen to it that his decisions cannot be blocked by other shareholders — nothing actually changes. He can call his company “Facebook”, “Meta”, “Ultra” or “Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich” for all we care: if his ethics and business mentality remain the same, all we’re going to get from Meta in the future is hate speech in VR. Not a great prospect.