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

Zuckerberg’s plans for an address in the metaverse opened to a lukewarm reception as young users flee and gamers yawn. Meta also cannot erase the fact that Facebook is teeming with toxic content.
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Last week at Facebook’s annual event, Connect 2021, Mark Zuckerberg launched Meta, a new brand. Meta, according to Facebook, will bring together its apps and technologies under one new brand. The company said, “Meta’s focus will be to bring the metaverse to life and help people connect, find communities and grow businesses.”

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

Facebook’s internal documents reflect desperation to win back young users, even talk about focussing on preteens—nine to twelve-year-olds—as “a valuable but untapped audience”. More importantly, it uses the same logic as the cigarette companies that targeted children. Once you hook children, they are hooked for life, providing companies lifelong captive customers. Or, in the case of Facebook, an opportunity to sell those hooked to it to advertisers for their lifetime.

The general reaction to Meta—or its metamorphosis to metaverse—has ranged from cold to bewildered. Most Facebook users have meagre knowledge of science fiction. So the universe as a metaverse, which seamlessly transitions from the real world to the virtual, is quite an alien concept. This is despite meeting during the pandemic on various platforms as boxed talking heads. Those with a serious bent of mind and knowledge of literature, who already find Facebook’s existing world dystopian, are more likely to connect Meta to Kafka’s Metamorphosis. In this dystopian novel, the protagonist awakes one morning 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, whose major point appears to be creating “cool” virtual spaces where we can meet with friends or colleagues wearing augmented reality or virtual reality devices.

Before we write off Meta, we need to remember 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 1,000-pound gorilla in the Wall Street metaverse! Facebook alone has a user base of nearly three billion, and billions of users of its WhatsApp and Instagram platforms. How many of these are unique users is a different question, but any company that owns the eyeballs of half the world population and has a mountain of cash cannot be written off.

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

Let us also look at the metaverse concept itself. As Zuckerberg explained, the difference between playing video games using your keyboard or your gaming console is the immersive experience. With devices that you can wear, including special glasses, or haptic gloves and suits, you can see or touch objects in the virtual world, to get the feeling that you are in the real world. In other words, you can give your imagination a rest and let wearable devices—augmented reality (AR) or virtual reality (VR) devices—do the work for you. Sure, enough books and films have been 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. A more recent iteration, 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 to the metaverse: one is to see it as a version of the real world where we can meet, go or play as in the real world, but with augmented reality/virtual reality created by our devices. That is, we visit different places with our friends, meet in our offices, visit even our doctor, all while sitting at home. Or, we can go and 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 about a million users. Second Life is an immersive universe that promotes interaction among its user avatars. It can have a number of worlds, each with 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 workers, but it sacrifices the creativity and control that an office space provides, where employees can meet and talk about work. Zuckerberg’s Meta could sell office property that allows people to “come into work” but in a virtual space either rented or bought by the company as an office in Meta. It will force people to be in the “same space” as others and yet provide them the luxury of avoiding long commutes or locating to where the company offices are. Zuckerberg could sell or rent space in his Meta and make a business model of it. Or, we could rent such spaces, choosing where the space is, as virtual lounges where we meet 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 that would work in the various versions of the universe and have a value outside Meta in dollars (or Facebook’s money, Libra). This would be 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 took off during the pandemic in the same way that online platforms such as Zoom and OTT platforms like Netflix. There are more than three billion gamers worldwide, and they spend a vast amount of time on their consoles. It is the gamers who have driven high-end PCs and laptops, which have then gone into other work that needs high-end graphics, such as video editing. It has driven Nvidia’s GPUs and a range of Artificial Intelligence (AI) applications. For the gamer generation, Zuckerberg and Facebook are, again, not-cool. They are unlikely to be attracted to Zuckerberg’s version of the metaverse either.

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

The short-term goal of Facebook was to get away from this sleazy company that promotes 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, which can power game-like alternate universes that intersect with the real one. But here is the Achilles heel of US companies: the US is far behind China and South Korea in the 5G race and much poorer in its broadband penetration than many European countries. Can the US overcome this deficit with state spending on 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 Facebook for selling hate and fake news, but of course, after it has wreaked enormous damage to our social fabric. The other 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, given its history, add to that and build a dystopian multiverse as Meta?

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