Why Meta should have been Facebook’s name from the beginning
There’s a lot to joke about in Facebook’s laughable attempt to escape its reputation as the internet’s most toxic company, by renaming itself to Meta and reshaping itself around the futuristic metaverse.
“Mark Zuckerberg has legally changed his name to Mother Teresa, Mother Teresa confirmed today,” joked The New Yorker magazine.
“Meta as in ‘we are a cancer to democracy metastasising into a global surveillance and propaganda machine for boosting authoritarian regimes and destroying civil society… for profit,’ ” said Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Democrat congresswoman, also from New York.
But one joke, in particular, got to the heart of the matter. It was one of the many memes going around the internet last week, about what Meta might stand for if it were an acronym:
Meta: Monetise Everything Through Advertising.
Everything that is toxic about Facebook, from the way it promotes eating disorders in children, to the way it helps undermine elections and promotes the spread of genocidal hate speech, comes down to advertising.
To sell more advertising, Facebook created algorithms that are indifferent to the content they promote, but that are expert at keeping people swiping on their Facebook and Instagram apps longer.
As the social scientist Shoshana Zuboff points out, the algorithms don’t care what emotions the content provokes – it could be the joy of reconnecting with a loved one, or it could be suicidal thoughts, or genocidal anger – so long as they provoke some emotion that keeps people engaged on the platform so they can be monetised through advertising.
In that sense, Meta should have been Facebook’s name from the beginning. Changing the name is Mother Teresa’s way of saying, “OK, I stuffed up, and the new name will make sure I never forget that fact.”
But, of course, Meta isn’t about Facebook leaning into its inherently toxic nature. Meta doesn’t actually stand for Monetise Everything Through Advertising, just as Mark Zuckerberg didn’t actually change his name to Mother Teresa. Those were just jokes.
Meta stands for a new version of the internet, one that will no longer resemble an addictive Instagram app running on a phone screen, and will be more like a video game running on a cryptocurrency platform.
And in this metaverse, the role of advertising companies such as Meta/Facebook and Alphabet/Google is very much up for grabs, presenting lawmakers, regulators and civil society activists with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to step in before harm is done, rather than try to regulate the harms away after the fact.
In the metaverse, though, the role of regulators is very much up for grabs, too. Depending on how it emerges, the metaverse might be so decentralised that no one company can ever control more than a small (virtual) island of it, neatly solving the Big Tech competition concerns that have troubled regulators such as the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission these last several years.
Indeed, the role of anything in the metaverse is up for grabs because the metaverse itself is far from an inevitability. And even if it does come about in a way that’s coherent enough to describe it as a “place”, it’s still far from clear what that place will look like.
It’s entirely possible, for instance, that some of the concepts that underpin current thinking about the metaverse – virtual-reality and non-fungible tokens in particular – will never get beyond curio status, much less become so fundamental to our lives that we all find ourselves living in a virtual world, buying digital simulacrums with cryptocurrency.
Virtual reality, which the metaverse is closely linked to but not completely wedded to, has had the air of “a solution looking for a problem” ever since Telstra did a VR version of the phone directory back in the 1990s.
It certainly was nifty, using your mouse to steer your way through the phone book as if it were a physical space, but could anyone really be bothered?
Having to move through data as if it’s three-dimensional brings into play the fourth dimension – time – and who wants to spend more of that when you can look up a phone number in a 2D search engine much more easily, in a fraction of the time, as Google later proved?
Of course video games and virtual-reality headsets have advanced VR enormously since the days when VRML (Virtual-Reality Modelling Language) was being hyped as the next frontier after HTML (Hypertext Markup Language), but the fact remains that, almost three decades of progress later, it’s still an index.html file that lies at the heart of every major site on the internet.
Nevertheless, it’s fair to say that Mr Zuckerberg’s embrace of the metaverse makes it more likely to come into focus in a coherent way, not less likely.
So now is the time for regulators and lawmakers and activists and voters to turn their minds to the metaverse, and ask themselves what sort of virtual world we want to live in.
Do we want it run by someone like Mark Zuckerberg, or by someone more like Mother Teresa?