The king of social media is dead, long live the king of social media. On Thursday (28 October), Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook’s holding company – which owns Instagram, WhatsApp, and virtual reality company Oculus – will no longer be called “Facebook”, but instead will be known as “Meta”.
The announcement came in a keynote address hosted by Zuckerberg, recorded in what looks like a luxury cabin, featuring cringeworthy cameos from people including his wife, Priscilla Chan, and Facebook vice-president Nick Clegg, outlining the future of the company: principally to produce a digital world built on virtual and augmented reality called “the metaverse”.
The metaverse is an online space where users will spend all of their time, creating customisable avatars, attending virtual gigs, going to virtual offices, and experiencing digital features in the real world through augmented reality glasses. (Yes – something akin to a jacked-up version of the Second Life online world.) This is the epitome of techno-optimism; the idea that technological advances will create a reality that’s better than our own. “We’ll be able to feel present,” Zuckerberg said, “like we’re right there with people no matter how far apart we actually are.” He described the metaverse as a “successor” to the mobile-first internet.
A healthy dose of scepticism is required. The metaverse will take years to come to fruition. And even when it does, it’s difficult to see it being quite the rich, easy-to-use, ubiquitous experience Zuckerberg has painted it as. So why announce it now? The timing of this name change seems notable. Facebook has been battling a storm of negative stories, from the leaked Facebook Papers (internal company reports leaked by a whistle-blower, including research which suggested that Instagram can be harmful to young girls, something Facebook later denied; as well as material on what Facebook knew about the scale of misinformation on its sites), to congressional hearings where Facebook executives have been grilled about a lack of child protection across its platforms. Theoretically, a new, forgettable name could take the hit in the press and keep the name “Facebook” out of the mud.
Of course, it’s hard to see a future where Facebook stops being referred to as Facebook and is no longer associated with these alarming stories. When Google opted for a similar tactic in 2015, rebranding its parent company to Alphabet, reporting and public consciousness around the name didn’t noticeably shift. And a name change won’t necessarily shield Facebook from negative coverage. As Guardian tech editor Alex Hern tweeted, “A reminder to other journalists: you don’t have to do this. You can, and should, continue to serve your readers by calling Facebook Facebook.” He added: “Mark Zuckerberg’s inane corporate stunt doesn’t control you.”
But even if the name-change doesn’t keep Facebook’s name away from bad press, it is in keeping with the company’s approach to negative PR since the Cambridge Analytica scandal. By creating new names and new entities – such as the Oversight Board, which is supposed to regulate Facebook, but in practice doesn’t make many decisions – Facebook can weather criticism through a half-hearted mea culpa or by kicking the blame onto some other body. Though this strategy might seem transparent, it has helped Facebook stay afloat (for example, following the name change announcement, Facebook stock prices have gone up).
As for the wider implications of Facebook’s grand plans, while the metaverse may be years (or even decades) off, it sends a clear message about the future of Big Tech. You can’t help but look at Zuckerberg’s metaverse alongside Jeff Bezos’s trips into outer space and Elon Musk’s obsession with cryptocurrencies; they are all part of the same boyish vision of stretching tech to the lengths largely written about in children’s science-fiction fantasies.
Instead of using the enormous wealth that these companies hold – not just economic wealth, but wealth of knowledge, tools and resources – to solve inequality, homelessness, hunger, or the climate crisis, Big Tech will continue its narrow focus on masturbatory ego projects that create utopian, digital realities for the benefit of those who can afford them. The metaverse will come with a real price tag (such as the cost of headsets and glasses), as well as a metaphorical one. Techno-optimism may feel positive and ambitious about all that tech can do, but we have to ask: doing what for whom?
This article appears in the 03 Nov 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Britannia Chained