Facebook’s Meta: Rebranding out of Trouble or Building a Dystopian Future?

LAST week, Zuckerberg at Connect 2021 launched a new company brand Meta. According to Facebook, “…brings together our apps and technologies under one new company brand. Meta’s focus will be to bring the metaverse to life and help people connect, find communities and grow businesses.”

Is this merely a rebranding of Facebook after the considerable hit its image has taken with the revelations of the whistle-blower Frances Haugen and earlier Sophie Zhang? Is it to move away from its sullied past and present to an alternate universe, the metaverse that Facebook will create? So that we forget about its hate-filled Facebook pages that fuel its ad-driven business empire? So that it may win back the young viewers that have voted against Facebook with their keyboards and joysticks?

Facebook’s internal documents reflect this desperation to win back the young users, even talking about focussing on preteens, 9 to12-year-olds, as “a valuable and an untapped audience”. More importantly, it has the same logic as the cigarette companies targeting children. Once you hook them, they stay hooked for life, providing the companies captive customers for life. Or in the case of Facebook, selling those hooked onto Facebook to the advertisers for their lifetime.

The general reaction to Facebook’s Meta – or its metamorphosis to metaverse – has ranged from cold to bewilder. For most users of Facebook, their knowledge of science fiction is meagre. So the universe as a metaverse that seamlessly transitions from the real world to the virtual is quite an alien concept. This is in spite of meeting during the pandemic on various platforms as boxed, talking heads. Those with a serious bent of mind and knowledge of literature, who find Facebook’s existing world already a dystopian one, are more likely to connect Meta to Kafka’s Metamorphosis. In this dystopian novel, the protagonist wakes up one morning as a human-sized cockroach; or his avatar changes to a cockroach in his metaverse! This and other hilarious memes have laughed at Zuckerberg’s Meta, in which the major point of his metaverse appears to be creating “cool” virtual spaces where we can meet with our friends or colleagues wearing augmented reality or virtual reality devices.

Before we write off Facebook’s Meta, we need to also remember that it comes with a tonne of cash that Facebook has accumulated and its market capitalisation of nearly a trillion dollars. As a company, it is still a 1000 pound gorilla in the metaverse of Wall Street! And Facebook alone has a user base of nearly 3 billion, with billions of users on WhatsApp and Instagram. How many of them are unique users is a different question, but any company that owns the eyeballs of half the world’s population and has a mountain of cash cannot be written off.

There are two questions for Facebook, and yes, I am going to call it Facebook for now and not Meta. One is what is the metaverse that it is planning to build? And does it have a business model? In other words, will it get the young audience it has lost and can they sell either virtual “properties” or “commodities” in the metaverse for real money?

Let us look at the concept of metaverse itself. As Zuckerberg himself explains, the difference between playing video games on your keyboard or gaming console is the immersive experience. With devices that you can wear, including special glasses, haptic gloves or suits, you can see or touch objects in the virtual world and get the feeling of being in the real world. In other words, you can give your imagination a rest and let all these wearable devices – augmented reality (AR) or virtual reality (VR) devices – do the work for you. And yes, there have been enough books and films made on such futures. Those interested can go to Issac Asimov’s Robot series, which, though focussed on robots, take the metaverse of virtual/augmented reality for granted. The more recent iteration on this, and from where the metaverse as a virtual reality expansion of the internet occurs, is Neal Stephenson’s 1992 science fiction novel Snow Crash.

There are two possibilities of the metaverse: one is to see it as a version of the real world where we can meet, go or play in the real world but with augmented reality/virtual reality created by our devices. That is, we visit different places in the world with our friends, meet in our offices, and visit even our doctor, all while sitting at home. Or we can go live as an avatar in an online virtual universe that has similar or different rules, a superior version of Second Life, backed by Facebook’s huge earnings and market power.

Second Life, set up in 2003, had many of the goals of Meta. It is still popular among a small set of users, numbering about a million. It is an immersive universe, promotes interaction among its user avatars, can have a number of worlds with their different rules and subcultures. It even has a currency, called the Linden Dollar, that can be used within this universe, but not outside. It is still debating its fundamental purpose: is it an immersive platform or a gaming world?

Both possibilities exist in Facebook’s Meta. An obvious driver of Meta as an immersive platform is the possibility of working from home. All tech companies are discovering that working from home is attractive to the workers but lose the creativity and control that an office space provides where employees meet and talk about their work. Zuckerberg’s Meta could sell office property that allows people to “come into work” but in a virtual space rented or bought by the company as an office in Meta. This will force people to be in the “same space” as others and yet provide them with the luxury of avoiding a long commute or locating to where the company offices are. Zuckerberg could sell or even rent space in his Meta and make a business model out of it. Or we could rent such spaces, choosing where the space is as virtual lounges to meet our friends the same way we rent Zoom rooms.

The other business model for Zuckerberg is to have properties, gadgets, tokens, and a host of props be sold for Meta cash which would work in the various versions of the universe and have a value outside in dollars (or Facebook’s money, Libra). Unlike the Linden Dollar, which can be used only in Second Life.

The gaming world is more difficult for Zuckerberg. The gaming industry has been decades in the making and has taken off during the pandemic in the same way that online platforms like Zoom and OTT platforms like Netflix have. There are more than 3 billion gamers in the world, and they spend a huge amount of time on their gaming consoles. It is the gamers that have driven high-end PCs and laptops, which have then gone into other work that needs high-end graphics, including video editing. It has driven Nvidia’s GPUs and a range of Artificial Intelligence (AI) applications. For the gamers, Zuckerberg and Facebook are again not cool. They are unlikely to be attracted to Zuckerberg’s version of metaverse either.

Of course, with his bags of cash, it is possible to attract companies who make games. If Meta can attract a set of well-known gaming companies to his platform, will that power his version of metaverse? Will such gaming companies give up their independence to Facebook? That is not an easy question, as, after all, cash has its allure: of cash!

The short-term goal of Facebook was to get away from this sleazy company promoting hate and fake news on its platform. But it is also focussing on the new era of connectivity, and AI tools that we are entering that can power game-like alternate universes intersecting with the real one. But here is the Achilles heel of the US companies: the US is far behind China, South Korea in the 5G race and much poorer in its broadband penetration from many European countries. Can the US overcome this deficit with State spending on its digital infrastructure?

Can Facebook also overcome its image as a toxic social media company and build a new life for itself in Meta? It can still wield a lot of power and influence, but with its ageing user base, it may slowly dwindle in importance. Society will punish it for its selling hate and fake news, but of course, after it has done enormous damage to our social fabric. The only danger is that virtual reality can be a toxic space, as we know from the misogyny in a significant section of the gaming community. Will Facebook, with its history, add to that and build a dystopian multiverse as Meta?