The Guardian: LONDON, England, By Imogen West-Knights – “Facebook”. The word paints a thousand pictures, every one of them a portrait of some element of the human condition I could happily live without. Message requests from veterans in Montana that read, “Hello beautiful Lady.” A friend’s mum reposting an announcement about the increased risk of dog-napping in a town 200 miles from where she lives. Suggested posts for things I have no interest in: classic cars, muay thai and the Duchess of Cambridge. Pages where guys can share pictures of their sportfishing equipment and views on immigrants, if that also comes up. A distant relative’s attempts at winning a cottage in a staggeringly fake-looking contest. A helpful infographic about how vaccines can cause brain polyps. Engagement photoshoots. Fascism.
Yet it seems we are at the end of an era. After 17 years, billions of dollars in profit and some minor controversies involving the erosion of world democracy, Facebook has changed its name. From now on, the parent company will be known as Meta, to reflect the company’s shift in focus to the next digital frontier: the metaverse (or virtual reality to non-nerds).
Facebook knows that our associations with it are less than favourable these days. The Wikipedia page “Criticism of Facebook” has a forbiddingly long contents list, including entries on tax avoidance and copyright violation, right through to traumatising its employees and allowing the publication of content that denies various genocides. Founder Mark Zuckerberg and his company have been busy trying to revamp its image, particularly in the wake of the platform’s Cambridge Analytica scandal. This renaming probably demonstrates their awareness that the whole thing has become toxic – that making noises, as they have been lately, about factchecking posts and shutting down sources of disinformation isn’t going to cut it PR-wise.
There is a long tradition of companies renaming themselves after a scandal. The private security firm Blackwater changed its name twice to try to dissociate itself from the killing of Iraqi civilians. The tobacco giant Philip Morris was renamed “Altria”, presumably to make you think of the concept of altruism rather than, say, terminal lung cancer. BP’s mid-00s forays into greenwashing included trying out the name “Beyond Petroleum”.
Facebook seems to want a slice of that pie, hence the transformation of the company name (although not the social media platform, for now). In a crowded field, the video demonstration of the metaverse that accompanied this announcement is one of the most dispiriting pieces of media I have ever watched.
Zuckerberg, looking more believably humanoid than ever before, stands in a sort of converted observatory overlooking the sea. He gestures widely with his hands in that particularly studied, Friendly Californian Boss way as he explains that the metaverse will offer users a “home space” with views of “whatever you find most beautiful”. Later, Zuckerberg’s avatar, who can apparently wear anything within human imagination and yet is still wearing a black T-shirt and jeans, zooms off to join some friends for a virtual reality card game.
“Who made this place, it’s awesome!” he says to a robot wearing a tennis visor, a floating woman, a translucent woman and some bald guy as he looks around at a sparse white conference room-type area of almost parodic bleakness. But the room is in space, and if the past few years have taught us anything, it’s that there’s nothing billionaire businessmen like more than being in space for no reason. Awesome!
Perhaps it’s because there’s a new Matrix film coming out, but I can’t help but associate Facebook owning the metaverse with a deep and gnawing sense of dread. Not because I think it will be like living inside Facebook, trapped for ever in a digital labyrinth of your aunt’s ex-husband’s weirdest protein-rich recipe videos, but because it seems like Zuckerberg has probably already had enough influence over reality without adding virtual reality into the mix too.
And more depressing still: this probably is the future, if Zuckerberg says it is. No doubt in five years’ time I will be wearing a headset and playing Uno with my friends on top of an erupting volcano or whatever, while we all sit in our increasingly unaffordable rented flats in a Britain with no petrol or food.
Whatever baroque horrors the metaverse has in store for us, though, the company name-change feels doomed to fail as a move to launder Facebook’s reputation. Some companies are too big to rebrand. Nobody really remembers that Google’s parent company is now called Alphabet. And some companies are too – how should I put it – bound up in the deterioration of all that is good and right in the world.
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but Facebook is going to have to do a lot more than give itself a new moniker to air out its pervasive odour of evil.
Imogen West-Knights is a writer and journalist based in London
- Top Feature Photo: ‘Zuckerberg’s avatar can apparently wear anything within human imagination, yet is still wearing a black T-shirt and jeans.’ – Facebook/Reuters