Facebook’s iconic thumbs-up sign at its Menlo Park, California, headquarters now bears a blue infinity-shaped symbol along with a new name: Meta.
The corporate rebranding, unveiled on Thursday at Facebook’s Connect conference, is part of Facebook’s headlong sprint into the metaverse, a virtual environment where people could work, play, learn and socialize with one another. CEO Mark Zuckerberg called the metaverse, which at this point is largely hypothetical, “the successor to the mobile internet.”
In charging into the metaverse, however, Facebook may be repeating the practices that got it into trouble in the first place. The company’s former mantra — “Move fast and break things” — encouraged a culture that rewarded new ideas without careful consideration of the risks. The metaverse will create an entirely new environment for Facebook’s legacy problems to take root.
Facebook’s fast-charging attitude has contributed to it racking up a seemingly endless list of scandals around data privacy, hate speech and misinformation. It’s been blamed for destroying democracy and for body shaming. The company’s latest controversy, which involves leaked documents gathered by former Facebook product manager Frances Haugen, has proved especially damaging. Haugen alleges the company has misled the public and investors about its role in perpetuating hate speech, misinformation and other harmful content.
Facebook denies the accusations, noting that it has more than 40,000 people working on safety and security. About 3.58 billion people use Facebook and its services every month.
Analysts say a clever rebranding won’t help Facebook distance itself from its many problems.
“A name change doesn’t suddenly erase the systemic issues plaguing the company,” Forrester vice president and research director Mike Proulx said in a statement. “If Meta doesn’t address its issues beyond a defensive and superficial altitude, those same issues will occupy the metaverse.”
Forrester, which surveyed 745 people across the US, Canada, and the UK, said 75% of those polled disagreed that a new company name will increase their trust in Facebook.
The company says the rebranding is a refocusing of its corporate priorities. Founded in 2004 in a Harvard dorm room, Facebook has spread beyond its roots as a social network. The tech giant now has virtual reality headsets, smart glasses and video chat devices. It also is dabbling in finance with its Novi cryptocurrency wallet.
During the Connect keynote, Zuckerberg said he’s well aware of the risks that come with entering a new field. Facebook doesn’t have a great track record when it comes to protecting the privacy and safety of its users, and those issues won’t vanish in the metaverse.
“Every chapter brings new voices and new ideas but also new challenges, risks and disruption of established interests,” he said. “We’ll need to work together, from the beginning, to bring the best possible version of this future to life.”
A future utopia or dystopia?
Zuckerberg’s presentation painted a hopeful vision of the metaverse, filled with digital spaces for people to gather. Friends could fence using virtual swords, attend concerts from their homes or simply work together in virtual offices.
But Facebook will also have to deal with the same issues it grapples with on social media, including data privacy, security, child exploitation and content moderation. Misinformation has been a widespread problem on Facebook’s namesake social network. Lies that spread on the platform have been blamed for the Jan. 6 insurrection and hesitancy to get COVID vaccinations.
That wasn’t lost on lawmakers, who have been studying ways to regulate the company and its Big Tech peers.
“Meta as in ‘we are a cancer to democracy metastasizing into a global surveillance and propaganda machine for boosting authoritarian regimes and destroying civil society… for profit!'” tweeted Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat from New York.
Virtual worlds existed long before Facebook ramped up investment in VR and augmented reality after its purchase of headset maker Oculus in 2014. And the world of virtual reality already has a harassment problem. In 2007, Belgian police were looking into whether an avatar allegedly raped another character in Second Life, a virtual world developed by Linden Lab, according to The Washington Post.
Andrew “Boz” Bosworth, who will become the company’s new chief technology officer in 2022, said in a video chat before the conference that muting another user could help give people more control over their surroundings in VR if they’re being harassed. Facebook is also exploring ideas such as allowing users to share the last 10 to 15 seconds of interaction with another person in VR with authorities. The company, though, will have to weigh the trade-offs between privacy and user safety, a dilemma it has confronted before with end-to-end encrypted chats on messaging apps.
Another issue that may pop up is the use of avatars to impersonate others. One solution could be tying the avatar to an authenticated account or verifying identity in some other way.
A new name, however, won’t help Facebook dodge its old problems. Lawmakers, celebrities and critics took swings at the company after its big reveal.
“Changing their name doesn’t change reality: Facebook is destroying our democracy and is the world’s leading peddler of disinformation and hate,” said the Real Facebook Oversight Board, a group of well-known critics. “Their meaningless name change should not distract from the investigation, regulation and real, independent oversight needed to hold Facebook accountable.”