Much of the world has been wondering what Facebook would do to begin to address the many serious corporate problems that continue to be revealed, almost daily, by former Facebook employee Frances Haugen.
The issues, many of them already known or suspected, are documented in the leaked internal Facebook documents the whistleblower took with her when she left. Their detail often reveals the company’s determination to do what best suited its bottom line, not what best addressed the societally-damaging problems exposed.
Arguably, very little of the world wanted to know what Facebook’s vision for the future might be, beyond desiring it to respond urgently and comprehensively to Haugen’s persuasive evidence offered in testimony and her tens of thousands of documents. But not for the first time, and certainly not for the last, Facebook followed its own contrarian rulebook and dramatically announced both a namechange and the new future it wants us to buy – in every possible way – into.
Facebook, the corporation, is now Meta, to better reflect the full-on focus on the someday-arrival of the metaverse, a term Facebook has been throwing around all year as its internet-of-tomorrow concept. What is it? According to the company, the metaverse is “a new phase of interconnected virtual experiences using technologies like virtual and augmented reality”. Chief executive Mark Zuckerberg blogged that it will be “an embodied internet where you’re in the experience, not just looking at it”.
The term metaverse comes from renowned science fiction writer Neal Stephenson, who coined it in his 1992 cult futuristic novel Snow Crash. Three decades later, however, only a few technologies have emerged that might enable a pale shadow of Stephenson’s rich metaverse. These include augmented reality apps, which can overlay a digital world onto the real world seen through a device’s camera, and 3D virtual reality (VR) headsets. Facebook/Meta owns one of the leading manufacturers of such headsets, Oculus.
While Zuckerberg stated last week that the metaverse will be a multiple-company effort, Facebook/Meta is the only major corporation pushing the concept hard, much less financing it. Meta will put $10 billion towards the metaverse’s development, and that’s just in 2021. By contrast, it will spend half as much, $5 billion, on its online safety efforts.
Zuckerberg insisted that the rebrand and metaverse hype had nothing to do with, say, trying to distract from the company’s other woes, a growing crisis larger than any in its history. Perhaps. Yet it’s difficult to overlook that $10 and $5 billion split. Yes, $5 billion is an astonishing sum towards improved platform safety. But the fact that the amounts aren’t reversed clearly flags the company’s priorities.