After days of speculation, the platform formerly known as Facebook unveiled a new name: Meta. According to founder, Mark Zuckerberg, this seemingly overnight rebrand signals a new direction for the social network behemoth, taking on the metaverse and creating 10,000 jobs in the EU alone.
However, the timing of the announcement – swiftly following a bruising period for Facebook reputationally – hasn’t gone unnoticed by its critics.
So, is this announcement evidence of Facebook advancing into new internet technologies for the greater good, or is it just a way to change the subject and rehabilitate their reputation with the public and policymakers alike?
The answer is probably a bit of both.
The metaverse refers to a virtual space which is accessible by people from different devices via augmented and virtual reality. This virtual world could be accessed by using an avatar, with people doing everything from holding meetings to purchasing digital land or art using cryptocurrencies, or even trying on clothes. So far, so sci-fi. But its clear that this is the direction of travel, the next big development after the mobile internet.
There’s little doubt that Zuckerberg is looking to build his next world-changing platform to counter Facebook’s stagnation, but is this pivot going to address the moral and ethical issues that has landed it in such hot water?
The impact of Facebook and Instagram on everything from mental health disorders, election outcomes, and the proliferation of conspiracy theories (especially during the pandemic) is well-documented. We’re yet to see how this new space, where advertisers could in theory read body language, voice intonation and all the other physical cues we can currently hide behind our screen, will address concerns about people’s privacy, or how a company that has historic problems with moderating content, will moderate a whole new digital landscape.
Allegations that it has under-resourced safety teams to protect profit, failed to stop the spread of hateful content around the world, and generally taken a laissez-faire attitude to people’s privacy counter the narrative the company seeks to publicise. The creation of the Facebook Oversight Board (a semi-independent panel that rules on controversial decisions surrounding moderation) was a step in the right direction to closing that gap, but we have yet to see their impact on internal policy. Facebook has a long way to go to closing their say-do gap, and there isn’t anything to suggest any differently in this newest announcement.
Yet despite the reputational damage the allegations have inflicted, Facebook’s stock is up by about 20% so far this year. So far, they have weathered the storm with no damage to their profits. What’s the incentive for them to change?
It’s said that the metaverse will take 10 years to build and make reality. With the focus firmly on this new goal, it may be easy for Facebook to brush aside criticisms of the ‘old’ company – especially if it’s not hurting share price. However, 10 years is a long time and the thin ice on which Facebook currently stands may start to crack. A successful launch in the future may hinge on their foresight to make strides in closing their say-do gap now, before it’s too late.