On Thursday, Facebook turned its annual Connect conference on its virtual reality offerings into a brand-wide, midcrisis makeover: The company debuted a new name—Meta, replacing Facebook Inc.—and a sales pitch for the metaverse, which is essentially an internet in which users interact with one another in virtual three-dimensional spaces. The keynote presented viewers with Facebook’s far-off vision of the metaverse, which apparently consists of people building virtual home offices and playing cards with robots in zero gravity. It was a sweeping and strange presentation, with the news of the name change reflecting the company’s stated pivot to, and substantial investment in, building the metaverse. The Facebook platform will now just be one of the subsidiaries —along with Instagram, WhatsApp, Oculus VR, and others—under the Meta parent company. Also, there was a jar of Sweet Baby Ray’s.
The hour-and-a half long livestream was a frenetic CGI extravaganza, like if Pixar produced an employee-onboarding video for an energy drink. It was the sort of spectacle that you wouldn’t quite expect from a company that is currently dealing with literally dozens of major scandals as a result of what is likely the most consequential leak in its history. Since mid-September, Facebook has been dogged by a constant flood of alarming news stories based on tens of thousands of documents that former employee Frances Haugen provided to journalists and regulators. The documents reveal that Facebook was aware that a number of its products and operations were seriously harming its users and society in general. Among the more prominent revelations are that internal research indicated that Instagram is making body image issues worse in many teen girls, that Facebook didn’t have a clear plan to handle content that fueled the Capitol Riot, and that its algorithms reward angry and divisive posts despite changes that the company said would elevate friendlier content.
At the very beginning of the presentation, Zuckerberg attempted to assure viewers that all this metaverse talk wasn’t just bread and circuses, referencing “all the scrutiny and public debate” currently swirling around his company. “I know that some people will say that this isn’t a time to focus on the future, and I want to acknowledge that there are important issues to work on in the present. There always will be,” he said. “So for many people, I’m just not sure there ever will be a good time to focus on the future.” He then stressed that making “mistakes” is simply a part of building the future. The term “mistakes” would seem to understate the gravity of the accusations that the company is currently facing, from tolerating religious violence in India to being ill-equipped to crack down on human trafficking.
From there, however, the bizarreness of the presentation cut against just how significance an expansion Zuckerberg was laying out. To sell the metaverse, the livestream included a cavalcade of clips featuring alien pets, virtual afterparties, and a hydrofoil video game.
It was only later in the program that a rather serious theme came up, one that Zuckerberg seemed to wish to disarm. At one point, the CEO assured his audience that Facebook is taking great pains to build the metaverse responsibly. Zuckerberg called up Nick Clegg, Facebook’s vice president for global affairs and communications, who has been the go-to representative to defend the company against accusations that it’s harming society and democracy for years. Over the past month he’s been arguing that Haugen’s leaks are misleading and that the repeated comparisons between Facebook and Big Tobacco are “overblown.”
During his segment with Zuckerberg, Clegg claimed that the goal of protecting users won’t conflict with innovation in metaverse. “In the past, the speed that new technologies emerged sometimes left policymakers and regulators playing catchup. So on the one hand, companies get accused of charging ahead too quickly, and on the other, tech people feel that progress can’t afford to wait for slower pace of regulation,” he said. “I really think that it doesn’t have to be the case this time around, because we have years until the metaverse we envision is fully realized.” Zuckerberg then rattled off a number of principles that Facebook will emphasize in its metaverse development, such as transparency, safety, privacy, and inclusion. The details of how exactly the company plans to put these principles into practice were scarce, save for a few mentions of safety and parental controls, age guidance, and data collection disclosures.
Citing these principles is all well and good, though the real question is how much Facebook (or Meta) will prioritize them. Haugen’s grand thesis, unifying all of her disclosures to the public, is that Facebook repeatedly puts profits, symbolized by growth and engagement, before people. Or, in other words, that engagement and growth will always trounce measures that will improve wellbeing and safety. When it’s convenient, the platform will happily install safeguards to improve safety, transparency, or what have you. But if that safeguard puts growth at risk, the company is likely to look the other way. As Catherine Buni recently pointed out in Slate, the metaverse—a category of internet where Facebook is trying to plant its flag early—will give the company unprecedented opportunities to collect biometric data and draw in young users. Policymakers may opt to be especially proactive to ensure that Meta goes down the right path—despite, or perhaps especially because of, Zuckerberg’s assurances that this time his company will get things right.