Facebook looks to hide troubles behind new metaverse strategy

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What we can expect from Facebook’s new Meta.
What we can expect from Facebook’s new Meta.

Facebook’s evolution to Meta could arguably simultaneously be a move to create a logical brand structure and an attempt to deflect the public relations disaster of its own making.

This is the word from industry pundits after Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg yesterday introduced Meta, the social network’s new name and major re-brand strategy, at the Facebook Connect 2021 Conference.

According to Zuckerberg, the company’s metaverse strategy is simply the “next frontier of the social media platform, which seeks to create an embodied internet” where users interact and live in an immersive experience and are not just viewers.

A “metaverse” is a virtual reality (VR) space where users in different parts of the globe can interact with each other and with virtual beings in a computer-generated environment.

The rebranding comes as the world’s biggest social media site has for years been under intense scrutiny from the media and regulators over privacy and competition laws, user security issues, fake news and hate speech, with growing calls from activists for Facebook to be subjected to statutory regulation.

Facebook, which has around 2.89 billion users across the globe, saw its number of daily active users dwindle by two million in the third quarter of 2020, as more people started to see the worst side of the social network, or did not feel the need to log on as often as they did before.

World Wide Worx MD and principal research analyst Arthur Goldstuck notes that Facebook, as a specific product, is a readily confused brand which also owns Instagram, WhatsApp and Oculus.

While the move to Meta is arguably a switch to a more logical brand structure, it is also as much about attempting to protect the business as a whole from a disastrous brand perception, he adds.

“Facebook become synonymous with election manipulation, riding roughshod over privacy and prioritising traffic above all else.

“The latter sees Facebook blamed, often accurately, for increasing polarisation in society, aiding and abetting content that increases teenage depression, and providing fertile ground for misinformation. It hopes that Meta will sweep all of this away in a single rebranding exercise. Of course, it won't.”

A further intention of the Meta brand, Goldstuck points out, is for Facebook to claim ownership of the concept of a VR metaverse. The irony is that the term was coined by Neal Stephenson, in his science fiction classic Snow Crash, for an evil corporation that created the metaverse as a means of controlling humans, he comments.

“This is certainly the unintended message that Meta will increasingly attract. It is as if Amazon were to rebrand Amazon Web Services as cloud, but in a world where clouds were evil. Facebook is notorious for ignoring harsh realities, and its assumption that the masses will be happy to lock themselves into a virtual world in order to conduct everyday activities like meetings and viewing content is likely to flounder on the harsh reality that it is utterly impractical outside of specific types of entertainment,” according to Goldstuck.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

However, during his announcement, Zuckerberg insisted Facebook’s new platform is the next evolution in a long line of social technologies, as it ushers in a new chapter for the company. It is expected to take users into a hybrid world of virtual social experiences and sometimes expanded into three dimensions or projected into the physical world, he said.

“Users will be able to do almost anything they can imagine − get together with friends and family, work, learn, play, shop, create new experiences and be able to teleport instantly as a hologram to be at the office without a commute, or be present in their parents’ living room to catch up – opening up more opportunity no matter where you live.”

According to Zuckerburg, the concept behind the metaverse is that the virtual world will not be created by one company. It will be built by creators and developers making new experiences and digital items. Facebook’s role in this journey is to accelerate the development of the fundamental technologies, social platforms and creative tools to bring the metaverse to life.

What it means for SA

Mic Mann, co-founder of innovation firm Mann Made and CEO of Africarare, which is billed as Africa’s first metaverse, points out that with VR set to be a multi-trillion-dollar industry, Facebook’s new strategy is expected to revive a fading brand.

“It will breathe new life into a brand that has had some recent negative sentiment. People may be sceptical that Facebook might become like a nation state that controls people, or may not wish to enter their metaverse due to negative connotations with the old Facebook brand.

“However, I think it is too soon to predict pitfalls. It is inspiring that a company as large as Facebook is so agile and able to adapt to the new world,” comments Mann.

Taking a tour of the metaverse.
Taking a tour of the metaverse.

As to how South African users and business will benefit from the new strategy, he explains: “South African users will be able to connect with a global audience, and interact with people via VR or the metaverse on a global scale, allowing them to be part of the new online global economy through trade and investment.

“The convergence between VR and blockchain technology is enabling true digital ownership, so for the first time creators can create virtual products and sell them in the metaverse.”

According to Goldstuck, the strategy could unlock opportunities for South African users. “We could expect a significantly enhanced product set around VR, and the formal arrival of the Oculus division in this country.

“We can also expect to see a re-doubling of efforts to integrate the user data of its various social media properties, but aggregated via Meta, to avoid a backlash against the individual platforms.

“That will allow for more accurate targeting of advertising on social media, but has the potential for further public relations fallout and regulatory action.”

The Meta logo.
The Meta logo.
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