Facebook is now Meta, but critics say same old problems remain
Company rebrands and brings its platforms under the Meta umbrella amid heightened criticism
Facebook officially launched its new name on Thursday, one that focuses attention on where it sees its future while drawing attention away from its contentious present and past.
The Silicon Valley-based company hinted at its new corporate structure last week and again in its quarterly earnings call on Monday but officially unveiled what the metaverse-frenzy was all about at a virtual event on Thursday at which CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced the new name: Meta
Originally coined by science fiction writer Neal Stephenson in his 1992 novel Snow Crash, the metaverse has come to mean different things over the years, but they are all built around the same premise: a fully immersive virtual reality that has versions of everything you'd find in real life so you have little reason to leave it.
To Facebook, it's the future.
Against a backdrop of digital avatars, Zuckerberg laid out a future world where friends from across the globe use their metaverse holograms to game together or attend concerts.
There are metaverse versions of work places and commerce, too, made possible by forthcoming hardware devices such as the company's Oculus VR headset and a new model of augmented-reality glasses reminiscent of Google Glasses but styled like RayBans.
Facebook's vision for the metaverse isn't one in which there are multiple different metaverses, all owned by different entities, but rather a collective one that seamlessly integrates with people's digital lives. Which is why they are focusing on it now, so that when it happens, Facebook-owned services and gadgets are poised to thrive within it.
Details of how it will all work still fuzzy
The company offered few details about the high-end technological gadgets that were making some of the visual, audio and interactive elements in its presentation possible, but Facebook says it forecasts up to one billion people to be participating in some sort of metaverse within a decade.
Other tech companies, such as Microsoft, chipmaker Nvidia and Fortnite maker Epic Games, have all been outlining their own visions of how the metaverse will work.
"That's cool," said Richard Kerris, vice-president of Nvidia's Omniverse platform, after being told by a reporter of Facebook's name change.
"We think there's going to be lots of companies building virtual worlds and environments in the metaverse, in the same way there's ... lots of companies doing things on the [internet]."
A lot of what Facebook hopes to contribute to the metaverse is still years away, but the company made clear it is going all in on the concept already.
"We are fully committed to this," Zuckerberg said. "It is the next chapter for our work and, we believe, for the internet overall."
The metaverse is so central to the company's future that it has reorganized its entire business around it, putting social media properties such as Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp in one distinct business unit and metaverse-focused virtual and augmented reality labs in another, all under the Meta parent company.
Changing the channel
The new focus comes as the company finds itself deluged from all sides by criticism of how it conducts its core business. A former data science executive at Facebook blew the whistle on the company's business practices last month, revealing details about its role in the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol and other instances of the company seemingly prioritizing profit over safety and other considerations.
In a series of interviews with journalists and testimonies in front of governments around the world, Frances Haugen detailed how complicit the company's social media networks are in spreading hate and misinformation around the world because it is good for their core business.
Company executives, including Zuckerberg, have dismissed her allegations as a "co-ordinated effort to selectively use leaked documents to paint a false picture of our company."
But despite those denials, Thursday's event makes it clear the company is trying to turn the page.
Daniel Tsai, a lecturer on law and technology at the University of Toronto, says it will take more than a name change to fix what's wrong with Facebook.
"There has to be new leaders at the top. They have to go and actually put in new plans that substantially change the way they use algorithms," he said.
Proprietary computer programs that Facebook uses to decide what content gets shown to users based on how likely they are to stick around and engage with it will need a rethink, he said.
Haugen's testimony to lawmakers suggests the company knows that content designed to produce a negative emotional reaction is more effective than other content, so, she alleges, they tacitly encourage it.
"They have to be transparent with the public and with government, as well to show that the algorithms are not there to do harm," Tsai said. "And they also have to act in a way that's transparent to the public in terms of how they're using people's data."
The metaverse-themed name change has little to do with those sorts of changes and is "really a PR stunt," he said.
Similar to other high-profile rebrands
Tsai says the ploy is not unlike those of other companies over the years that found themselves with an image problem and decided to change their name to turn the page.
"The comparison people are making with Facebook is it's big tobacco or the new big tobacco," he said. "I think that's a fair assessment."
The biggest tobacco company of all time, Philip Morris, tried something similar in 2003 when it rebranded as Altria.
Other industries have done the same. Accounting firm Arthur Andersen was one of the five biggest accounting firms in the world when it came to its end by signing off on the books at Enron — which carried out the biggest accounting fraud in American history.
The accounting portion of the business went bankrupt and was wound down, but the consulting side was launched under a new name: Accenture.
Marketing consultant Laura Ries compared the name Meta to when BP rebranded to "Beyond Petroleum" to escape criticism that it harmed the environment.
"They can't walk away from the social network with a new corporate name and talk of a future metaverse," she said.
Digital strategist Katrina German agrees that it will take a lot more than a new name to fix what's wrong with Facebook.
"The thing that's going to build trust is not a new name; it's going to be meaningful action and actually doing things to ensure that they're not harming people," she said in an interview with CBC News.
"They're definitely trying to sway public opinion and get people excited about their technology, [but] they have enough data and enough money and enough chance to experiment that they can be coming up with solutions to stop this problem."
With files from The Associated Press