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Facebook, the tech giant enmeshed in yet another round of controversy, has changed its company name to Meta, CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced last Thursday during an extended presentation outlining his future vision for the company.
On the surface, the rebranding is a relatively typical corporate restructuring. Meta is now the parent company overseeing the collection of brands that once fell under the Facebook umbrella. Facebook — the app and social media platform — will keep its name and become a division of Meta alongside Instagram, the messaging service WhatsApp and the virtual reality firm Oculus. Google made a similar transition in 2015, when it moved its search engine and other brands under a new company called Alphabet.
The name Meta is a reference to the “metaverse,” a concept for the future of the internet that Zuckerberg said would be the company’s primary focus going forward. Definitions vary, but in general the metaverse refers to an immersive, three-dimensional digital world layered on top of, or serving as a substitute for, everyday reality. In Zuckerberg’s vision, it would allow users to do everything from attending meetings or concerts virtually to shopping for digital or real-life goods instantly to interacting with friends as if they’re in the same room. The idea of the metaverse isn’t new — the term was coined in a dystopian science fiction novel in 1992, and several other companies are pursuing their own versions of the metaverse.
The rebranding comes at a time when Facebook is under fire for revelations from the Facebook Papers, a series of internal documents released by a whistleblower that show the company knew about a wide array of harms its products cause but chose to ignore them for the sake of maintaining its profits.
Why there’s debate
Facebook’s critics have argued that the company’s name change is largely intended as a distraction from the ongoing public relations mess created by the Facebook Papers and earlier scandals, like privacy breaches and election interference. Siloing the Facebook name under a new corporate umbrella, they argue, can help spare the company’s other brands from the ire that so many express toward the social media network.
But others see the restructuring as much more than a PR play. Some say shifting brands around could be a way to avoid regulations that could stifle the company’s business or even lead to its being broken up. It may also make the firm less dependent on the performance of its social media platforms, which some analysts believe are likely to decline in the coming years.
Many tech industry insiders argue that, whatever short-term benefits the name change may bring, the real motivation is that Facebook is going all-in on the metaverse as its future. The implications of that move, they say, could have enormous implications for how we interact with the digital world. If its metaverse succeeds, Facebook could have full control over a new version of the internet that becomes the interface through which we experience reality or — in the most extreme predictions — supplants reality itself.
Right now, Facebook’s version of the metaverse is largely theoretical. Zuckerberg has said it will be five to 10 years before it will be ready for the public. Some skeptics say it could take much longer, or could very well be impossible.
The metaverse is a fantasy meant to turn eyes away from Facebook’s real-world impact
“Facebook's problems are too numerous to list, and so he is pitching products that don't exist for a reality that does not exist in a desperate attempt to change the narrative as it exists in reality, where we all actually live.” — Jason Koebler, Vice
Facebook wants to dominate the next version of the internet
“Zuckerberg clearly wants to become the dominant on-ramp to the next generation of the internet, an ‘embodied internet’ in which we don’t just passively browse by looking at screens on our phones and computers, but which we explore with our avatars akin to the way you might visit an actual place.” — Rizwan Virk, NBC News
The name change is a signal Facebook isn’t willing to do the work to fix its product
“As the company is confronting some of the harshest and most undeniable criticism in its troubled history, it is attempting to douse a PR fire with a costly rebrand instead of doubling down on investments in safety, security, and integrity.” — Carolyn Tackett, Thomson Reuters Foundation
The new name spares the company’s other brands from Facebook’s bad image
“If the Meta name does anything for Facebook, it might be creating confusion around who runs the show. … As the company plans to roll out more and more products, distancing itself from the Facebook name could help build trust with its users.” — Arielle Pardes, Wired
The restructure could save Facebook from being cut down by Congress
“Facebook is not on the verge of being broken up, exactly, but regulators are making enough noise about restricting its growth ... that it makes sense to place bets in some areas … that are less likely to be regulated any time soon. In addition, since so many of Facebook’s regulatory problems stem from the way its apps are used for fractious political debate, the metaverse could allow it to point to a kinder, gentler social universe that hasn’t yet been co-opted by angry partisans.” — Kevin Roose, New York Times
The company’s survival rests on pivoting away from social media
“Zuckerberg is not talking about his metaverse project as a potential sideline. He appears to see it as something that will eventually supersede Facebook’s current line of business. … It is to the metaverse that Zuckerberg hitches his hopes of luring younger people — probably lost irretrievably to the main Facebook app — back to his products.” — Leonid Bershidsky, Bloomberg
Zuckerberg wants Meta to be the only company that matters
“With ‘Meta’ and the broader plans he outlined last week, Zuckerberg has essentially declared that he wants to dominate life itself. He wants to do so totally, pervasively, constantly, and commercially.” — Siva Vaidhyanathan, Slate
The metaverse would make Facebook essential for every aspect of everyday life
“In essence, the metaverse isn’t just a virtual world, but an intermediary layer between you and the rest of the world — a set of technologies meant to insert Facebook’s business between individuals and their daily activity. In the same way that Facebook monetized basic communication, it now wants to monetize, well, life. In short, Facebook wants to be the operating system for reality.” — Navneet Alang, Toronto Star
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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images, Facebook (4)