Why has Facebook changed its name to Meta and what is the metaverse?

Facebook has rebranded itself as Meta in an attempt to own the metaverse, a concept for a 3D version of the internet that a number of companies are working on

Technology



29 October 2021

By Chris Stokel-Walker

Mark Zuckerberg

CEO Mark Zuckerberg explains that Facebook is now Meta

Meta

Prepare for plenty of confusion in the coming months, because Facebook – whose products are used by more than 3 billion people worldwide – has decided to rebrand itself. Here’s everything you need to know.

What has happened?

After plenty of speculation, Facebook, the company that owns platforms including Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, rebranded as Meta on 28 October. CEO Mark Zuckerberg told attendees at the company’s annual Connect conference: “Right now, our brand is so tightly linked to one product that it can’t possibly represent everything that we’re doing today, let alone in the future. Over time, I hope that we are seen as a metaverse company, and I want to anchor our work and identity on what we’re building toward.”

It is important to note that Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram will all be keeping their names. But the company that produces and maintains them will now be called Meta – similar to Google’s 2015 corporate restructuring into a parent company called Alphabet. Facebook (the company) even changed the logo outside its building on 28 October.

Sorry, what is a metaverse?

The name was chosen to echo the key product that Zuckerberg hopes Facebook – now Meta – will be represented by: the metaverse, the name for a shared online 3D virtual space that a number of companies are interested in creating as a sort of future version of the internet.

“In this future, you will be able to teleport instantly as a hologram to be at the office without a commute, at a concert with friends, or in your parents’ living room to catch up,” Zuckerberg wrote in a letter announcing Facebook’s rebranding as Meta.

But it is in the future. Not now. The metaverse unveiled by the company in August looks like The Sims or another, older immersive world: the 2003 video game Second Life.

Why is Zuckerberg doing this?

For one thing, Meta doesn’t want to be known solely as a social media platform. My suspicion is that this is about owning the operating system of the future, and Facebook’s experience of being an app on other people’s – rivals’ – operating systems,” says Anupam Chander at Georgetown University Law Centre in Washington, DC. “They don’t want to be prisoner on other people’s platform. They want others to be prisoner on their platform.”

Meta did make oblique references to Apple in its announcement, saying it wanted to avoid a single company restricting what you can do and charging high fees, but Max Van Kleek at the University of Oxford is sceptical that Meta itself will wield control over its metaverse.

“Is Meta going to simply provide the tools rather than be the gatekeeper? I doubt that they would relinquish anything that might compromise their position as the definitive advertisement provider of the metaverse, for instance,” says Van Kleek.

Doesn’t Facebook – sorry, Meta – have bigger things to worry about?

There has been a steady drip of negative stories following the release of the Facebook Papers, internal documents highlighting issues with the company, secreted out of the firm by whistleblower Frances Haugen. Some have seen the new name as a way to distract from this narrative.

“All the bad press and political battles it is currently fighting have to do with its social networking products, so launching something entirely new – in their minds – is a way to completely rebrand and start fresh, without changing much with the existing problematic products,” says Taina Bucher at the University of Oslo, Norway, and author of the book Facebook.

Chander sees it as an attempt to overlook, rather than overwrite, the issues raised by the Facebook Papers. “I think this is Facebook trying to pretend that there aren’t strong headwinds, and carrying on as if those headwinds didn’t exist,” he says.

What happens if Meta succeeds?

One issue with Meta trying to be the sole company underpinning the metaverse is the pivotal role it would play in our lives if its vision of the future becomes a reality. The company has struggled with outages on its key apps that removed the ability to communicate for large parts of the world in recent months – and if such a thing were to happen in an all-pervasive VR universe like the metaverse, the consequences could be huge.

“The whole presentation of the metaverse is so utopian and naive,” says Bucher. “It makes a lot of sweeping assumptions about how people live their lives. I’m sure not everybody would be so thrilled about [having it in] the home space.”

“This is yet another world that they want to conquer,” says Chander. “Having conquered the Earth, they now want to conquer the virtual metaverse.”

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