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The Metaverse won't change Facebook’s reputation

Zuckerberg's platform will need more than a new name if he really wants to reclaim the trust of the people

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Image Credit: Anthony Quintano

Not content with the widely-hated Facebook name polluting the image of their future products, the company that was first Facebook, then FACEBOOK, is now Meta, rebranding as a “Social Technology Company”. The social media giant already operating Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and more has some new ideas, and doesn’t want to be weighed down by past mistakes.

Why Meta? Against the backdrop of a world with social distancing fresh in its collective mind, Meta aims to create what they call a “Metaverse”. The concept is nothing new, first being coined in Snow Crash, the 1992 novel from science fiction writer Neal Stephenson. According to Meta, a “Metaverse” is a “hybrid of today’s online social experiences. It will let you share immersive experiences with other people even when you can’t be together”.

The premise of creating realistic digital experiences for people to socialise and collaborate at distance is the stuff of science fiction certainly, but it’s too soon to be a reality. It’s an ambitious pitch by all means, but Zuckerberg’s usual wooden personality didn’t do Meta any favours. He appears once again like a visitor from outer space, desperately trying to mimic the human experience. One might question if he of all people knows what the real world he’s trying to emulate is really like.

It’s easy to be suspicious of the timing of such a heavy rebranding. Whilst we got a good look at some of their ideas, very little was shown about the hyper-immersive technology they’re aiming to pioneer. We seem to be many years away from their vision. So, why now?

"Imagine a world where the lines between social media and social reality are blurred."

They’ve always been known as the company that made Facebook, that just happens to do other things. A shift to a structure of a company that does “Metaverses”, and just happens to have made Facebook, is quite drastic.

Facebook’s troubled public image is probably involved. Going all the way back to the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook has long been seen as a company with a lax morality. Their usage of intrusive tracking technology is the primary business model, monetising deeply targeted advertisements. They keep eyes on those adverts for as long as possible with a design philosophy that fosters social media addiction. It’s not so surprising, then, that keeping the Facebook name as far away from their plan to change the world is a driving force behind the rebrand decision.

Sir Lynton Crosby coined the term “dead cat on the table”, more recently popularised (and utilised) by Boris Johnson. An announcement that's sufficiently absurd acts as a distraction from the constant slew of criticism of Facebook's moral record. After all, if someone throws a dead cat on the table, you can’t really focus on anything else. As far as Meta is concerned, forget Facebook, we’re into the Matrix now!

The success of this strategy for Meta remains to be seen, but Zuckerberg wasn’t subtle in his plan to avoid talking about the present in favour of the future. Looking back to the Metaverse’s literary roots, Neal Stephenson himself sees Snow Crash as somewhat of a dystopian vision, with people choosing to remain forever in the Metaverse, never interacting with the real world. It’s hard not to be unsettled by the thought of a profit-making company with Facebook’s history in control of our everyday interactions. If Meta can make addictive social media products now, imagine a world where the lines between social media and social reality are blurred.

Meta already wants this technology in education, creating virtual classrooms in partnership with Harvard and MIT, so it might not be long before social interaction in a virtual world is normalised for children. This will likely be how uptake of the technology begins.

Meta has already shown Facebook’s power to manipulate people’s emotions and political views. When Cambridge Analytica used Facebook’s data for political advertising, the Information Commissioner’s Office fined Facebook for not protecting its users. With clients in successful campaigns including Trump advisor Steve Bannon, and Vote Leave, it’s easy to question what might have been different if the reported 50 million profiles harvested had been protected. With radicalisation becoming more common on the platform, and seemingly no plan to tackle this, how easily could they manipulate the “reality” we perceive everyday? Meta has a lot of questions to answer, and their motives seem far from pure.

Facebook did make one welcome announcement recently though. They’re reportedly going to stop using facial recognition technology and delete much of the biometric data collected from their users. Social media was alight with a mix of jubilation and suspicion. This would represent a major policy shift. Maybe this rebrand isn’t all for show and they’ve realised how important privacy is to the future of their company? It seems not. The scepticism seems to have been proved correct as Meta already utilises their rebrand to twist the truth. While they did promise to remove Facebook’s biometric data, they made no such promise about Meta.

These sleight-of-hand tricks are a more than slightly disingenuous way to fill the press with a good promise, whilst quietly abandoning it.

If this is how Meta intends to start its journey into redefining how we use technology, it calls into question how much trust we can put in them to keep our most intimate moments of social engagement truly private.

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