“From now on, we’re going to be the metaverse first. Not Facebook first,” Zuckerberg said at Connect, the company’s annual event focused on virtual and augmented reality. “Facebook is one of the most-used products in the world. But increasingly, it doesn’t encompass everything that we do. Right now, our brand is so tightly linked to one product that it can’t possibly represent everything we are doing.”
The move comes as Facebook is mired in controversy over allegations that it has privately and meticulously tracked real-world harms exacerbated by its platforms, ignored warnings from its employees about the risks of their design decisions and exposed vulnerable communities around the world to a cocktail of dangerous content. After a whistleblower this month turned over tens of thousands of internal company documents to Congress and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, lawmakers and critics have called for urgent action to rein in the tech giant.
The revelations by whistleblower Frances Haugen represent arguably the most profound challenge yet to Zuckerberg and his company, which ranks as the largest social media platform in the world. Critics swiftly criticized the move, comparing it to the crisis strategy employed by tobacco company Phillip Morris when it became clear that the company had long known that cigarettes damage human health.
“Don’t forget that when Phillip Morris changed [its] name to Altria it was still selling cigarettes that caused cancer,” tweeted Democratic lawyer Marc Elias.
Zuckerberg said the rebrand would heed the “lessons” of the past, noting in a blog post that privacy and safety would be built into the new generation of products “from Day One” — a clear nod to Facebook’s record of eroding trust. In his keynote address, he also nodded to Facebook’s problems, saying, “The last few years have been humbling for me and my company in a lot of ways.”
But Facebook’s trust deficit is real. The crisis brought on by the Facebook Papers, which were provided to Congress and the Securities and Exchange Commission in response to a whistleblower lawsuit, follows other scandals in recent years, such as Russian disinformation surrounding the 2016 presidential election and the Cambridge Analytica crisis that highlighted the improper sharing of personal data.
The current crisis is more existential for the company, because the harm comes from within rather than from an outsider abusing the service. The Facebook Papers also touch every aspect of the service, exposing fundamental flaws in the architecture of its algorithms, the design of the platform, and its policies, while the harms exposed around mental health and polarization hit close to home for many Americans.
The Facebook Papers were obtained by a consortium of news organizations, including The Washington Post. Facebook has called them a “coordinated effort to selectively use leaked documents to paint a false picture of our company.”
One of the major allegations of the Facebook Papers is that the company built and deployed social media technology without having a grasp of its harmful effects. Critics fear the same problems would plague the metaverse — only the stakes could be higher, as Zuckerberg pitched that people would essentially live part of their lives in his virtual world.
He sought to offset potential criticism by saying in his presentation that the next generation of Internet services would be built with greater “humility and openness,” and take the “lessons” of the past into account. But critics and some former insiders questioned that commitment.
“I was thinking during the keynote, who will be the cops in the metaverse?” said Katie Harbath, founder and CEO of consultancy Anchor Change and former Facebook public policy director. “The first few years may seem great because not that many people are on the service, but the more that come on, the more bad actors. And then the company plays catch-up.”
Harbath noted that roughly every five years, the company has announced a big directional change amid a bad press cycle. In 2012, the company pivoted to mobile while getting attacked for a poor performance during its public offering. In 2017, it announced a shift to focus on communities and groups — bringing the world together — after the controversies over Russian disinformation during the previous year’s presidential election.
For the time being, Facebook’s name change seems aspirational. A company that Zuckerberg launched from a college dorm room 17 years ago has become a conglomerate encompassing WhatsApp, Instagram, Messenger and a nascent payments and hardware business, leading some experts and insiders to say that the company was long overdue for a name change.
But virtually all of Facebook’s revenue — $29 billion in the third quarter — comes from online advertising produced by the core blue Facebook app, meaning that any transition to virtual reality focused on the sale of hardware would take enormous investment and many years.
“While the name change indicates a larger vision, that transformation is not yet a reality and will be a years-long investment,” eMarketer analyst Audrey Schomer said in an email.
Zuckerberg and Facebook have acknowledged that. Zuckerberg said in his keynote that the process to become a metaverse company would take a “decade” and that his goal was for it to “reach a billion people” over that time. On Monday, the company said its investments in the metaverse — which include a commitment to hiring 10,000 new people in hardware jobs — will shave $10 billion off its 2021 profits.
Zuckerberg’s keynote was filled with a dizzying array of scenes that showcased the company’s vision for the metaverse. It included Zuckerberg doing his favorite water sport, hydrofoiling, with friends in a virtual environment, and then jumping into work meetings from a virtual home office, boxing with virtual avatars and working out on a virtual lily pad.
In a letter on the company’s website posted shortly after the keynote, Zuckerberg said that the future would be “an embodied internet where you’re in the experience, not just looking at it. We call this the metaverse, and it will touch every product we build.”
Zuckerberg began talking about how the company would transition to a new identity this summer. He subsequently announced a smart-glasses partnership with Ray-Ban and a plan to use its virtual reality headsets for work-related videoconferencing. He promoted a longtime friend who heads the hardware division, Andrew Bosworth, to become the company’s new chief technology officer.
The political dimension of the rebrand also began months before Haugen emerged with the Facebook Papers. Facebook executives spent parts of the summer introducing the metaverse idea to experts in Washington think tanks and planning outreach to federal agencies that might regulate its hardware, The Post previously reported. Zuckerberg has told colleagues that he no longer wants to be the face of the company’s headaches in Washington and elsewhere.
The term “metaverse” comes from science fiction and has been popularized by venture capitalists in recent years as a way to talk about interconnected services.
Facebook also isn’t the first Silicon Valley company to rebrand itself. Google changed its parent company’s name to Alphabet in 2015 in an attempt to unify a corporate behemoth that encompassed not only search-and-display advertising but also driverless cars and a life-sciences division. Snapchat changed its name to Snap Inc. in an attempt to rebrand itself as a camera company.
Zuckerberg said that the name “meta” was inspired by his love of the classics, and that it comes from the Greek word “beyond.”
“For me, it symbolizes that there is always more to build, and there is always a next chapter to the story.”