by Rohan Sinha (’23) | November 19, 2021
The futuristic concept of a “metaverse” is not new; it comes from Neal Stephenson’s 30-year-old novel Snow Crash, where a digital universe allows for a perilous escape from a dystopian world. On October 28th, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg potentially made fiction reality when he announced that his company will rebrand itself as Meta. He committed his company to building a “metaverse,” a new generation of interactive technology.
Facebook’s critics had varying reactions. In a statement, Paul Barrett, Deputy Director of the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights, accused Zuckerberg of attempting “to distance [his] company from growing outrage over the harm it is causing to democracy in the U.S.” At the Web Summit in Lisbon, Roger McNamee, one of the first investors in Facebook, made an even graver accusation: Zuckerberg might create a “dystopian metaverse.” These criticisms raise the question: Is Facebook’s rebranding meant to alleviate short-term crises, or does it signal a more long-term shift?
Some have suggested that Zuckerberg sought to divert attention away from the numerous crises engulfing the company, particularly the release of the Facebook Papers by The Wall Street Journal that detailed private communications among Facebook employees. These papers suggest that Facebook knew about the damage its social media platform can cause. Facebook denied charges of wrongdoing: “[We’re] a business, and we make profit, but the idea that we do so at the expense of people’s safety or wellbeing misunderstands where our commercial interests lie.” But many observers are not satisfied with this denial, particularly after learning a stunning revelation—the company knew that its Instagram platform could damage the mental health of teenage girls but did not act.
Given this alleged wrongdoing, critics called out the company for its name change. The Real Facebook Oversight Board, a watchdog group, said in a statement, “Their meaningless name change should not distract from investigation, regulation, and real, independent oversight needed to hold Facebook accountable.” The group’s statement suggests that Zuckerberg’s primary goal is to provide a short-term distraction from the company’s crises.
Yet there is evidence that Facebook’s renaming is not “meaningless.” The Facebook Papers indicate many employees’ concern that Facebook has far less popularity with young people. According to a report from The New York Times, Facebook employees have worried that Instagram has started to lose young users to other platforms, notably the popular app TikTok. In a meeting with investors, Zuckerberg himself expressed concern about TikTok’s appeal to teenagers to explain his new focus on marketing to young users. Apparently, teenagers’ digital presence contributed to the “metaverse” rebranding.
Still, the concept of a “metaverse” itself remains ambiguous. Zuckerberg envisioned a “metaverse” as a place where people can “do almost anything [they] can imagine.” However, this vague statement leaves a vast room for interpretation. Still, experts agree that the “metaverse” would create a virtual environment, a world in which the internet becomes 3D. People could manipulate virtual property just like physical property and share a common virtual space with other people, using virtual and augmented reality. For example, virtual concerts, online trips, and digital stores would be made reality. But these possibilities also raise new concerns.
Amie Stepanovich, Executive Director of Silicon Flatirons in the University of Colorado, explained to The Associated Press how the vitriol of social media might translate into the metaverse: “We approach that differently—having somebody scream at us than having somebody type at us. There is a potential for that harm to be really ramped up.” Even though Zuckerberg advocates the metaverse as a solution to impersonal communication during the pandemic, Stepanovich’s remarks show how more face-to-face interactions facilitated by the metaverse may not be a net positive for the future.