When Facebook recently announced it was going ‘Meta’, it appeared to most of us as nothing more than a name change and another slightly unnerving video appearance of Facebook Daddy Mark Zuckerberg, apparently still not quite accustomed to his human form.
Social media experts say that’s pretty much correct – ‘Meta’ is just the pretty new face of the same old book (unless the BBQ sauce on Mark’s bookshelf is sending us a hidden message).
So why a name change? And why now? In recent years Facebook has come under intense public scrutiny, with numerous news stories, documentaries and whistle-blowers calling the company out for everything from harvesting and selling user’s personal data through to sharing election-altering misinformation.
Edith Cowan University digital marketing lecturer Dr Violetta Wilk says Facebook needed to change its name in order to move past the barrage of criticism facing its social media platform.
“Facebook’s name change to Meta is designed to help the company move forward, to build the next digital frontier, which is all about the Metaverse,” she explains.
“Re-brands such as this allow for distancing legal risks, lawsuits and potentially negative public relations or publicity. By rebranding, Facebook can also protect its core business, by separating its business units so that one will be protected, isolated and treated as a separate business entity.”
Under the Meta umbrella, Facebook is positioned as just one subsidiary alongside Instagram, Whats App, Oculus and other products.
Meta is also set to build a new digital platform called Horizon, which will host the ‘Metaverse’.
In his way-too-long founder’s video, Zuckerberg explains that the elements of virtual and augmented reality will be harnessed to make users feel a part of an entire new world of their own creation.
He stresses “presence” will be the key feature of his new universe, aided by VR goggles and AR glasses, which could become as common in households as a PC or iPhone.
Apparently, tapping words into keyboards is a thing of the past, with Zuckerberg suggesting users will be able to make things happen just by thinking it.
This entire concept was pitched as something that will completely change the way people interact in the digital space, bringing with it new forms of socialising, gaming and working.
Media and culture studies lecturer James Hall says the Metaverse comes with a vast range of positive possibilities.
“Going to the GP, where there’s accessibility issues, these things can provide a significant benefit,” he says. “If there’s another pandemic, or a superbug has us all locked in our houses again, the idea of having a Metaverse to go into is really appealing.”
Despite this potential for unlimited fun and convenience, Mr Hall says Meta is still a business with profit firmly in its sights.
“This is something that’s being built with the alibi of user experience, but with the reality of they’re spending 10 billion dollars on it,” he says.
“In terms of what this is going to look like, it’s going to be extremely commercial.”
Predictably, where massive profits are at stake, ethical issues are bound to arise.
Dr Jude Elund from Edith Cowan University says there’s good reason to worry.
“Data surveillance and transactions are how Facebook makes most of its money,” she says. “We know that is their number one priority when it comes to making money. If we are to start spending part of our reality in this virtual realm, that means that those interactions that we’re going to have in the Metaverse are actually going to be controlled to a certain extent and certainly monetised by Facebook.
“It will start to look like what we see in ‘The Matrix’ where the actual system controls us rather than us controlling the system. They control all of the infrastructure. They control all of our data, so when we actually go into these virtual simulations, they can essentially control us.
“The fact that these new technologies that can have fantastic applications are being used and essentially monetised by one of the most unethical corporations that we’ve actually ever seen, and monopolises our existence and our data and invades our privacy, it’s incredibly concerning.”
Mr Hall says the Metaverse may benefit from negative issues already caused by social media.
“Body dysmorphia, eating disorders, depression, loneliness, all of these things are being amplified through the use of these social media platforms and probably getting people to a point where they want to escape their world, which is constructed by some degree by these social media apps,” he says.
“In the Metaverse, they can go and experience whatever they want to do.”
Dr Wilk says despite Zuckerberg’s promises of a convenient digital world with a pretty new name, the ugly shadow of Facebook’s past won’t be easily forgotten.
“Facebook will have to work to get the buy-in from people that are sceptical already,” she says. “That will take some time, it’s not something that happens overnight, and certainly it’s not something that can be fixed with a rebrand. Facebook’s making good use of this new opportunity. They have to instill people’s trust first.”