Facebook and the next stage of our digital Meta-morphosis

Man using facabook on laptop and phone

Written by Professor Alan Brown, Professor in Digital Economy, Exeter Business School

I have never liked being Alan Brown. It feels like such a boring name. Too easily forgotten or confused with so many others with the same identity. Apparently, I was going to be called Alex, but there was a change of mind at the last minute. But I am not sure that would have helped much. In fact, I remember at IBM, a company that had 450,000 employees at that time, scanning through the IBM Bluepages staff directory to find that there were 6 other Alan Browns. No wonder my email had been going astray! I wonder, would my life have been different if I’d had a more interesting name?

So, I understand that names matter. They play an important role in forming an identity, shaping the view we have of ourselves, and influence how we represent ourselves to others. That’s why from my perspective the recent announcement that the Facebook company is now called Meta is a significant move. Changing their name is much more than a chance to refresh their image and design a new corporate logo. It is a statement of intent about how they see themselves in the next phase of their journey. It establishes a persona that will guide their outlook on key decisions they will be taking as they move forward.

Of course, it is easy to be cynical of such declarations about this name change and its implications. Particularly in the case of Facebook as it faces challenges about how it is living up to its responsibilities as a major technology platform provider offering services relied upon by millions of people, delivering its financial obligations as the source for significant tax revenue, and recognizing its influential role as a social media channel used in the sharing of information about everything from everyday lifestyle issues to political ideologies. There is a lot to unpick here and the debates on these topics show no sign of abating.

However, beyond these concerns, the importance of the timing of the announcement of Meta should not be overlooked. The past 2 years of the global pandemic have been very challenging for so many individuals, organizations, and institutions. One result of this has been a collective reassessment of where we are going in our lives, driving shifting perspectives on the future of the planet, and forcing personal adjustments in how we want our future to unfold. Today, many people see the world through different eyes. 

On a practical level, the acceleration of digital technology adoption has been an important part of how we have been able to cope with many of the challenges the pandemic has created. Undoubtedly, these technologies have been essential in the rapid response required to find a vaccine and distribute it. Meanwhile they have helped us to operate businesses, react to changing circumstances, communicate with families and loved ones, and continue to function as a society. We now have no doubt that we are engaged in a digital economy and a digital society.

Driven by this great acceleration in digital technology adoption, the effects of the shifting attitudes and understanding of this transformation are being widely seen. From the great dispersion to the great resignation, the implications for us all are profound. We may well be entering a time when there is a significantly different balance between the raised expectations and aspirations for a digitally-powered future versus the slow pace of change adopted by many of our major institutions. A tension that will define the agenda of many company strategies over the next few years.

With the announcement of Meta, we can see Facebook throwing down the gauntlet for a new digital future. Beyond today’s 20th century view of the internet-based networks that have shaped our thinking about how to digitize the world we know, Facebook can be seen to be challenging us to reimagine the future as a different country. And as Ben Evan’s stated, in this new environment Facebook wants to be the landlord, not a tenant.

Their declared focus is the “metaverse”. As yet largely undefined, the initial scope for this vision is broad and significant. The goal is to focus beyond the current concept of social media toward a much more immersive interactive experience for entertainment, communication, work, and everything else we do in the digital world. It is an approach summarized in the announcement as follows:

The metaverse will feel like a hybrid of today’s online social experiences, sometimes expanded into three dimensions or projected into the physical world. It will let you share immersive experiences with other people even when you can’t be together — and do things together you couldn’t do in the physical world. It’s the next evolution in a long line of social technologies, and it’s ushering in a new chapter for our company.

On the surface, the approach described is an obvious step to place their investments in virtual reality (Occulus) and video messaging (Instagram) into a broader context where they reimagine social media platforms as collaborative spaces for work, interaction, and entertainment. Undoubtedly, we will see early announcements of new capabilities and products building on this base.

However, this description also borrows a great deal from other virtual world activities seen in gaming and elsewhere. More than a decade ago, companies such as IBM spent a great deal of effort (and money) on Second Life. This is a virtual world where avatars can act on your behalf to perform real operations in a virtual representation of your environment. It was an intriguing concept, but not easy to use in practice. My own experiences some years ago in participating in these activities were not particularly rewarding. At that time, engaging with this virtual world felt disconnected, clumsy, and confusing. 

In recent years, there has been a huge step forward in these immersive worlds, mainly in the online games industry. As we have seen from the success of games such as Minecraft and Fortnite, these technologies have the ability to hold people’s attention, create meaningful interactive experiences, and drive significant ecosystems of commercial products and services. A model for success that will have received a lot of attention from all the major technology platform providers. 

Placed in this context, Facebook’s announcement of Meta establishes their intentions to own the future of the immersive social media experience. By declaring the hiring of 10,000 new employees to build this future, they are demonstrating that the name change will be accompanied by a significant shift in resources to create a foundation for establishing the next phase in their journey. With this meta-morphosis, Facebook is signalling the move to a new digital era.

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