Facebook becomes Meta: A new lick of paint, but facing the same challenges
Facebook has faced a torrent of political challenges, controversy and criticism in recent years. Campaigners and policymakers critique how the social media giant handles radicalisation on its platform, with leaks from whistleblower Frances Haugen adding to Mark Zuckerberg’s woes. Haugen, who formerly worked for the company, claimed it is “making hate worse” with its managing of disinformation.
The difficulties remain today, but the critics will now be taking aim at the same company under a new name and brand. Meet Meta, Facebook’s rebranded umbrella company, which was unveiled yesterday at Facebook’s Connect event.
The new branding neatly outlines the social firm’s vision of becoming a metaverse company in the future. But it will still face great challenges ahead, both from a political and branding perspective. Meta remains an elephant in the social media chatroom, though its blue hide has been painted a new hue.
Have we Meta?
Meta will be the new umbrella company that comprises of all of Facebook Corp’s owned subsets, such as Facebook (the original platform), WhatsApp, Instagram, and the (newly renamed) Reality Labs. The set-up is similar to the creation of Alphabet, Google’s parent company, which oversees the wide range of services which the company provides. But similar challenges may arise, too. Though Alphabet is the umbrella company, most people and analysts still colloquially refer to them as Google, nearly six years after the change. Although the name is different, the pillar of brand strength still lies in Google – a challenge which Meta may face as Facebook is incredibly embedded into society. (Further, the FAANG may need a rearrangement; MAANG does not have the same ring as its former name, and the less said about MANGA the better.)
VR headset maker Oculus saw its name quietly retired in a blog post, with future headsets being renamed as “Meta Quest” as part of a slow and steady transition. Andrew ‘Boz’ Bosworth, the incoming CTO of Meta, said in the same post that he feels a ‘strong attachment’ to the brand, and that it was a ‘difficult decision to make.’ But quietly, it is also the cap to a multi-year evolution where Meta bought the manufacturer in 2014, fired the founder in 2017, integrated the development capabilities and expertise into the wider company, and pushed for their own stance and direction with immersive technologies. Such an evolution shows that Meta has its own vision, and they wish to make their mark on their own terms. Historians will likely see Oculus as the pioneering start-up that caught Meta’s eye, as a precursor to their initiatives with Reality Labs and Meta.
The name aligns the company with its core aim of becoming a metaverse company. As CEO Zuckerberg said in his founder’s letter, the corporate aim is ‘to help bring the metaverse to life, and the name ‘reflects the breadth of what we do.’ The aim is to be metaverse-first, informing its vision as it charts the path to connect people together — all part of an ‘embodied internet.’ Such a goal pivots away from Facebook’s identity as a social media company, which Zuckerberg said he is “still proud of”; but with the shift in direction comes a name change that reflects its path.
It is also an expensive pivot, as Leo Gebbie, XR Analyst at CCS Insight, noted: ‘It’s possible that we’ll look back on this Connect presentation in years to come as a staging post on the transition to a world where spatial computing is widely embraced. Meta has no shortage of money to invest in its project and looks set to gamble heavily on building this future world.’
Such a change in direction will face scrutiny. The metaverse has seen a rise of interest over 2021, with Google Search terms skyrocketing in the former half of this year. But the term is still nebulous, sowing more confusion than clarity. The term is still ill-defined, with just as many discussions on its meaning as its potential future. Meta attempted to define it in its own way, showcasing how its Horizon applications may connect users together or provide private spaces for people to relax — but it is one definition of many. Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, explored the ‘enterprise metaverse’ that fits into his company’s plans with Microsoft Hololens and digital twin technologies. Time will tell whether Meta’s definition will be adapted by other players with the same vision.
Another key question is around ownership, as worries abound that Meta wants to ‘own’ the metaverse. Not so; like the web of today, Zuckerberg claims there will be a range of companies that provide the foundations, using interoperable standards that would be accessible across a variety of means. It will be similar to the internet in that it is accessible in a number of ways, but different in that it offers qualitative and immersive experiences as opposed to flat-screen entertainment.
The conversation also bleeds into privacy. Jeremy Dalton, head of XR at PwC, explains: “As the business and consumer world progress towards the Metaverse, the stakes for protecting one’s identity get even higher. Even if your account is not compromised, it will be incredibly intrusive should someone gain access to use your photorealistic likeness as an avatar in a virtual world. That is why it’s important to have conversations now about the impact this could cause and how to safeguard against it.”
Another challenge that Meta faces is that it needs to show the public that the range of services they use all connect to one umbrella company with one vision, rather than a disparate range of services which (seemingly) do not connect with one another. Remarkably, Meta’s recent outage provided public awareness that WhatsApp, Facebook, and Instagram are owned by the same company, as all three halted services at the same time. With time, Meta’s new name will be well-known by the tech-literate and business-savvy, followed by casual browsers who use their services daily. But in the meantime, memes and jokes will flare across Twitter and their own sites as people confront the new name.
All of these outline the main question: will Meta’s vision of the metaverse become the de-facto version? It may not be the first failed collaborative project that Meta will pioneer. Diem, a digital currency that was formerly known as Libra, failed to get backing from financial regulators for several years. If the metaverse will be built in collaboration, Meta will need to successfully work with its partners to get it on track.
Further, it is difficult to build the idea of the metaverse while we are still constructing it. The first ARPANET link — a precursor to the modern internet — connected UCLA and Stanford Research Institute in 1969. No language or lexicon existed at the time to describe what could proceed its evolution, nor when the wider networks were merged during the 1970s or 80s, or the rise of Web 1.0 in the 90s.
Meta wishes to create its own vision of the metaverse, while we are still awaiting what the fundamental standards of interoperability will be. To continue building the future, Meta needs to outline the bedrock from which it will build.