It’s all been kicking off at Zuckerberg Towers. Facebook (the mother company that owns Facebook, Instagram and Whatsapp) is deep in its biggest PR crisis to date, after a former employee appeared in front of the US Senate with thousands of leaked internal documents, claiming that Facebook has repeatedly put “astronomical profits before people”. It’s the latest in a long line of accusations levied at the company, which has just been fined £50 million for another dodgy merger deal and suffered an embarrassing global outage. All in all, it hasn’t been a great month for Facey‑B.
Except, surprise! Facebook (the company) doesn’t actually exist anymore. Last Thursday, at Facebook’s annual Connect conference, Zuckerberg announced some Big News: “Facebook Inc.” is now rebranding to become “Meta”.
That’s Meta as in the metaverse, the digital parallel universe that will eventually replace the internet as we know it.
Yep, it smells suspiciously like an elaborate distraction technique. But this is the biggest social media company in the world. For our sins, Brits spend around 2 hours a day (8 per cent of our bloody lives) on social media. So whether we like it or not, these grand plans will impact us all. Let’s break down what all the fuss is about.
So, why is Facebook controversial again?
To be completely honest, there are too many scandals to list, but here’s a quick reminder of the big hitters. There’s the Cambridge Analytica scandal (when Facebook allowed the data of 87 million users to be harvested without their consent and used to manipulate the 2016 US election); a long-running history of tax avoidance; the catastrophic mistreatment of its moderators, which left one dead and many suffering from PTSD; and, obviously, the negative impact its social media sites have had on the public’s health (lest we forget that the literal inventor of the “like button” has sworn off social media because of addiction fears).
TLDR: Facebook is deeply problematic. That’s been the key takeaway from the testimonies currently being shared in court by former Facebook data scientist Frances Haugen.
She’s revealed documents that show Facebook knew that Instagram was damaging teenagers’ mental health, but decided against doing anything to help. They also show how the company deliberately creates algorithms that force organisations to post increasingly divisive (and engaging) content and allows dangerous political situations to escalate without interference.
She says that she believes in the potential for social media to “connect us, without tearing our democracy apart”, but that Facebook instead continues to let hateful and harmful content spread on its sites, hooking children while they’re vulnerable and keeping us all coming back for more. Ouch.
Sounds like Facebook is in need of a clean slate...
You can say that again. Sure, it would be complicated and embarrassing. But worth it for the sake of society? You’d think so.
But Zuckerberg has different ideas. He’s denied the allegations, instead announcing that Facebook is changing its name to Meta and investing billions in futuristic new technologies.
In the bonkers announcement videos released last Thursday, Zuckers roams around a series of animated rooms, sharing his vision for Meta and beyond. He describes how all of our screens – TVs, laptops, phones – will soon be replaced with holograms or AR. That might mean Netflix and chilling with a hologram projector rather than a precariously balanced laptop (our example, not his), or looking at Google maps through super-thin AR glasses rather than your phone.
Instead of scrolling through social media feeds, we’ll socialise online as avatars, in digital worlds we create for ourselves in Horizon Home and Horizon Worlds (Meta’s VR platforms), while the future of hybrid working will see colleagues joining meetings as holograms (lol) or holding virtual meetings in the Metaverse rather than over Zoom.
Zuckerberg says “the defining quality of the metaverse will be a feeling of presence – like you are right there with another person or in another place”, which is the “ultimate dream of social technology”. He continues to explain that “this isn’t about spending more time on screens. It’s about making the time we already spend better.”
In what is definitely meant to be reassuring, he emphasises that the company’s “mission remains the same – it’s still about bringing people together.” Given its track record, the mission doesn’t seem to be going so well…
Meanwhile, Nick Clegg (yep, turns out he’s emerged from 2015 to become Facebook’s Head of Global Affairs) announced that Meta will create 10,000 metaverse related jobs in Europe and “billions of dollars of digital commerce”.
Blimey. How has everyone reacted?
There’s been a lot of taking the piss out of Mark Zuckerberg. Why? Well, there’s the fact that he’s shamelessly grabbed the tech world’s buzzword of the moment, his very unsubtle choice of timing, plus the fact he looks like a deepfake and is in desperate need of some avatar fashion advice. Not to mention, Meta means “dead” in Hebrew, so the Hebrew-speaking world is having a field day, with the hashtag #FacebookDead trending on Twitter.
Elsewhere, there has been lots of excitement from investors and crypto-nerds. Commentators have pointed out that Meta’s plans are a savvy business move rather than just a PR exercise: driving innovation will help to attract and retain younger audiences, which could steer Facebook and Instagram away from becoming content graveyards haunted only by boomers and conspiracists. Stock prices have been soaring since the announcement (although many have accidentally invested in Canadian material manufacturer Meta Materials rather than Meta itself – oops).
Then there were the scathing hot takes, like this from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: “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!”. Yeah, pretty much.
Cool, so is this going to change anything?
Yes and no. We’ll almost certainly end up using lots of the technology Meta is developing. After all, we’re already addicted to most of its products. But there’s no need to fully freak out about the prospect of the metaverse. The technology Zuckerberg talks about will creep into our lives slowly as new products are introduced and old ones become obsolete. Our beloved iPhones will still be in our lives for years to come, they just might end up with the same retro appeal as our former-favourite Nokia bricks.
The far scarier question is whether Facebook’s transition to Meta will bring about any change for the company itself. If a mass court case exposing your company’s deep-rooted corruption doesn’t prompt you to change, then it’s not looking that promising. Maybe it’s time we stop laughing at Mark Zuckerberg (easier said than done, appreciated) and start holding him to account. Halloween might have been and gone, but this won’t be the last we hear of the skeletons in Zuckerberg’s closet. Looks like spooky season’s not over just yet.