Rebranding as Meta, Facebook emphasizes VR future over crisis-beset present
In a move that signals the company’s growing focus on augmented and virtual reality projects, Facebook — which owns the photo sharing app Instagram, the virtual reality company Oculus and the messaging platforms Messenger and WhatsApp, as well as its namesake social network — will now be known as Meta.
The new name is a nod to the idea of the “metaverse,” a concept trendy in Silicon Valley that encompasses a mix of physical, virtual and mixed realities that users can access and interact with through devices such as virtual reality headsets or mixed-reality glasses.
“I believe the metaverse is the next chapter for the internet, and it’s the next chapter for our company, too,” said Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder and chief executive, during a Thursday morning media event.
Zuckerberg’s announcement came a little over an hour into a livestreamed Facebook Connect keynote event. Before the reveal, Zuckerberg and other company leaders discussed a variety of metaverse projects the company is working on, including work and exercise simulations, real-time virtual tracking of physical objects and photorealistic online avatars.
This transition has been a long time coming for Zuckerberg. After acquiring Oculus for $2 billion in 2014, he described virtual reality as “the future of computing.”
Zuckerberg acknowledged on Thursday that the rebrand — and the corporate vision it embodies — is a shift in focus from the social media realm that defined Facebook’s early days. But he said the company’s driving goal — connecting people — remains the same.
The term “metaverse” is the latest buzzword to capture the tech industry’s imagination -- so much so that one of the best-known internet platforms is rebranding to embrace the futuristic idea.
“The metaverse is the next frontier, just like social networking was when we got started,” Zuckerberg said. Facebook, he added, “is one of the most used products in the history of the world. It is an iconic social media brand. But increasingly, it just doesn’t encompass everything that we do.”
The company is now “looking at and reporting on” its business as “two different segments,” he added: a “family of apps” on one hand and “future platforms” on the other.
The company’s apps and their branding will remain the same. The “What We Build” section of the newly updated Meta website still lists a Facebook app — that is, the flagship social network — underneath a banner featuring the Meta umbrella company’s new logo, which resembles an infinity sign.
It’s a move reminiscent of what Google did in 2015, when the company launched Alphabet, a separately branded parent company that encompasses not just Google’s eponymous search engine but a whole suite of miscellaneous tech properties as well, including Fiber (a communication infrastructure company), Sidewalk Labs (an urban design company) and Calico (a project aiming to “cure death”).
It’s also a reversal of earlier efforts by the company to unify its various enterprises under the Facebook name. In 2019, the company updated the branding of two of its biggest subsidiaries to “Instagram from Facebook” and “WhatsApp from Facebook.” The move was seen by some as a means of binding the apps more tightly together to make a potential antitrust action more difficult.
Facebook’s Meta rebrand comes as the company fends off an onslaught of criticism and potential legal challenges stemming largely from its social networking business. A series of leaks facilitated by whistleblower and former Facebook employee Frances Haugen have led to story after story over the last month about the negative social effects of the two platforms, many of which Facebook staff appeared to know about internally.
Just this week, those leaks publicized the company’s slow response to anti-vaccine misinformation being spread on the Facebook app; its understaffing of content moderators with foreign language fluency; and concerns on the part of app store operator Apple that the social network was facilitating the sale of Middle Eastern maids.
Earlier revelations, which Haugen discussed before Congress this month, focused on the apps’ harmful effects on minors and amplification of political extremism.
For critics of the company, the rebrand is little more than a distraction from such problems.
“Changing their name doesn’t change reality: Facebook is destroying our democracy and is the world’s leading peddler of disinformation and hate,” said the Real Facebook Oversight Board, a watchdog group critical of Zuckerberg’s company, in a written response to the rebrand. “Their meaningless name change should not distract from the investigation, regulation and real, independent oversight needed to hold Facebook accountable.”
The term “metaverse” repeatedly used by Zuckerberg first appeared in the 1992 sci-fi novel “Snow Crash.” The concept also played a central role in the “Ready Player One” franchise.