Embroiled in a number of controversies — from indifference to election tampering allegations to whistleblower reports regarding ignored health implications for young users — Facebook announced last month that it would change the company’s name to Meta and shift focus to virtual and augmented reality technologies.
At Facebook’s annual Connect Conference, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg articulated his vision for a virtual future called the “metaverse,” which will allow for new kinds of art, business, entertainment, and social interaction. In particular, Zuckerberg emphasized his desire for the metaverse to facilitate “hundreds of billions of dollars of digital commerce”resulting from novel approaches to content creation and interaction.
Facebook already has over 10,000 individuals working on augmented and virtual reality projects in its Reality Labs division and has spent billions of dollars on acquiring companies in the space. Nevertheless, it plans to add another 10,000 employees in Europe and open a series of Meta retail stores to preview and sell its virtual reality products.
The important question seems to be: Why make this change now? Since Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus 7-years ago, it’s been an open secret that Facebook planned to make significant moves in the augmented and virtual reality spaces. Though a corporate reorganization on this scale requires a serious degree of premeditation, the timing of this announcement seems far from serendipitous.
Facebook appears to be attempting to steer the conversation away from antitrust legislation, its disregard for internal research showing serious health consequences for teenage users, and an algorithm that prioritizes profit over individual safety.
One might have hoped that in announcing this pivot into new and untapped technologies Facebook — now Meta — would’ve addressed the many political, social, and health-related issues the platform poses and perhaps outlined a more socially conscious path forward. They did not. Instead, Zuckerberg focused on the profit-generating potential of a new mode of social interaction — entirely virtual and privately owned.
In fact, the implications of Facebook moving into the metaverse seem entirely deleterious. Yes, Meta has committed to significantly increasing the number of employees in its Reality Labs division and has indicated serious expansion of its investments in augmented/virtual reality. This may have unforeseen positive consequences, like the development of virtual reality classrooms for underprivileged students. But what seems more likely is the migration of user bases from Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp to the “metaverse”, where they’ll be subject to the same algorithms that prioritize Meta’s profit over their individual safety — just in a more immersive environment.
The public seems to gravitate toward the latter view as poll data indicates trust in Facebook dropped 5% after the announced rebrand to Meta. Meta is implicated in too many large-scale social controversies for it to honestly believe that the change of a name would solve anything.
If Meta hopes to improve its relationship with the public, the company should commit to addressing the most dangerous problems its platforms pose. For example, a promise to seriously address the mental health implications of Instagram, as outlined in the Facebook papers, would go much further in resolving its public image than a simple rebranding.