A decade ago, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, was on Time magazine’s 2010 Person of the Year. He was dubbed “the Connector”.
A decade later, the social media company that connected people around the world and was called the industry trendsetter faces a humongous crisis. This month, Time placed Zuckerberg on its cover again, with a caption line “Delete ‘Facebook’?”
A lot is wrong with the company. In its relatively short existence, the company had to deal with many privacy issues.
In 2006, the company faced user outrage when it introduced its News Feed. In 2007, it had to apologise for telling people what their friends had bought. In 2018, Zuckerberg broke his silence on the data harvesting allegations. The revelation that a data analytics company used by Donald Trump’s presidential campaign was able to surreptitiously collect data from up to 87 million Facebook profiles prompted Zuckerberg to issue a public apology and promise changes.
Facebook has a history of running afoul of regulators and weathering user anger, all the while collecting record profits and racking up more than 2 billion users.
Crises, controversies and challenges are front and centre of the company. And as the company faces a series of public relations crises, on Thursday, Zuckerberg announced the social media giant will change the name of its holding company to Meta. He revealed the new term at Facebook’s annual AR/VR conference, where he outlined the company’s virtual reality (VR) vision for the future.
Zuckerberg sketched his plans to build the metaverse — a digital world comprising VR headsets and augmented reality (AR). “We believe the metaverse will be the successor of the mobile internet,” Zuckerberg said. “We’ll be able to feel present — like we’re right there with people no matter how far apart we actually are.”
“I believe the metaverse is the next chapter for the internet, and it’s the next chapter for our company, too,” added Zuckerberg during the media event.
As it broadens its reach beyond social media, the change does not apply to its platforms, such as Facebook, Instagram and Whatsapp, only the parent company that owns them.
In the last couple of years, Facebook’s virtual reality segment has been growing substantially. Recently, the company announced it will now report its revenue separately, dividing its products into two categories. The categories include a “family of apps” including Facebook, Instagram, Messenger and WhatsApp, and the “reality labs” products including AR and VR and any related hardware.
Also Read: Get Ready For Metaverse
Facebook has invested heavily in VR and AR, developing hardware such as its Oculus VR headsets and working on VR glasses that project the wearer’s eyes and smart wristband technology. Recently, it revealed a VR workspace for remote workers.
Over the next two years, its new XR Programs and Research Fund will invest to ensure metaverse technologies are “built in a way that’s inclusive and empowering,” Facebook said, and research how to design technologies that are inclusive and accessible to all users, and also “encourage competition” in the nascent industry.
Zuckerberg on Thursday also said he expects the metaverse to reach a billion people within the next decade. He described futuristic plans to create a digital world, in which users will feel they are with one another and have a “sense of presence” despite being far apart.
The company unveiled a new sign at its headquarters in Menlo Park, California, replacing its thumbs-up “Like” logo with a blue infinity shape.
But Facebook’s rebranding comes amid deep challenges. Those include a series of recent reports based on documents leaked by the whistleblower Frances Haugen, wherein she accused the company of putting “profits over safety”.
Media outlets have been publishing reports based on internal documents, the so-called “Facebook Papers, from Haugen, a mix of presentations, research studies, discussion threads and strategy memos.
The documents reveal how some of Zuckerberg’s claims about Facebook’s principles clashed with the findings. He once told the US Congress that Facebook removes 94 per cent of the hate speech it finds, but according to internal estimates, the number was probably less than 5 per cent.
The revelations have ignited a firestorm for Facebook as US lawmakers accuse the company of covering up internal research about its negative effects.
It’s not surprising then that Facebook and the other apps it owns, including WhatsApp and Instagram, are now seen as harmful platforms for misinformation.
At the same time, the company rakes in billions of dollars each quarter in profits. The company also keeps growing its user base, which now encompasses nearly half of humanity — roughly 2.89 billion monthly active users as of the second quarter of 2021.
While Zuckerberg acknowledged, on Thursday, that the rebrand is a shift in focus from the social media that defined Facebook, many critics of the platform say that the metaverse project is a distraction from the company’s public relations crises.
Is Facebook out of touch with real people? Evidently. While communities, from the US to India and Vietnam, are trying to alleviate the harms caused by its platforms, Facebook sets its sights on the metaverse while its safety efforts fail. This year, the company has dedicated $10 billion to the metaverse, while its safety division received $5 billion in funding.
Name change aside, the company has a lot of work to rebuild trust and confidence in consumers and demonstrate that it can protect privacy.
The rebranding exercise looks like an exercise to divert attention away from negative stories around the company. But will the rebranding work? In 2015, Google restructured its company calling its parent firm Alphabet, however, the name has not caught on. No one refers to Google as Alphabet.
It’s unlikely, introducing a new name that can act as a parent company overseeing subsidiary groups like Instagram, WhatsApp, and of course, Facebook can help divert negative publicity.
Clearly, Zuckerberg is no longer interested in the social media realm, although almost all of Facebook’s revenue comes from advertising from Facebook and Instagram, as he is focusing more on creating virtual worlds that he thinks will transform the human experience.
But changing names doesn’t change reality. The rebrand is little more than a distraction from its problems. It is a case of too little, too late to save itself.