Facebook has been in the news quite a lot recently, there have been allegations, investigations and corporate reshuffles. In case you have missed things, or have lost track of the story, here are the main points:
Facebook started life in 2004 as a social network app aiming to connect students at Harvard College. The name Facebook referred to the student directories often given to American university students containing student details and a portrait photo - a literal book or faces.
From there it expanded first to use across other US universities and eventually to the general public.
Facebook was the name of the application itself but also of the company that owned and operated it.
Like many tech corporations, Facebook the company grew not just through gaining more users but also through the buying of other tech companies and acquiring their expertise, software, applications and services.
In fact Facebook has acquired in the region of 90 companies since its inception, the most recognisable perhaps being Instagram, WhatsApp and virtual reality company Oculus.
You can find a complete list here, if you are interested in digging further.
Often the technology acquired has been rolled into the main Facebook application, though some of the more stand-alone applications such as Instagram retained their own branding with a small addition that refereed to them being owned by Facebook.
While Facebook is a strong brand this all makes sense, but things are changing.
The corporation ‘Facebook’ recently announced it was renaming and rebranding to ‘Meta’.
There are many reasons for a corporation to rebrand, here are perhaps some of the things which have led to this particular decision
1. Falling adoption
The Facebook application has for some time had a problem attracting younger users, in fact the ‘ageing population’ of the Facebook user base is well documented. I’ll bet if you ask your pupils they’ll tell you Facebook is what their parents or even grandparents use, but it’s not really for them.
Younger people have traditionally been an important driver in the rate of adoption and use of new technologies and so maintaining the ‘Facebook’ branding may well put off younger users from new services if they associate the branding with the activities of their elders.
For this reason, it’s easy to omit Facebook from discussions on online safety within schools, but as we’ve stated, Facebook has its fingers in lots of pies, many of which are very popular with young people. Maybe the rebranding to ‘Meta’ opens up the possibility for discussion, especially when understanding the various applications and how they can share data between them.
Almost since the very start, Facebook has courted controversy. Early on these were often about business practices, intellectual property wrangles or the personal and business relationships of the most well-known founder and figurehead Mark Zuckerberg. However, there have also been a fair amount of accusations and legal actions around things which should concern us more from a safeguarding and online safety stand point.
There have been numerous privacy issues, including the leaking of data and the corporate use of personal data by third parties. The case of Cambridge Analytica and it’s use of the personal data of 87 million Facebook users in its political marketing activities is one of the more well-known incidents. You can read more about that here
In addition, accusations of corporate practices leading to psychological harm, societal instability, tax avoidance, advertising fraud and dissemination of harmful fake news among others have tarnished the Facebook brand.
Recently an internal report showed that the company itself was aware of the potential harm its Instagram service was doing to teenage girls in particular. One slide in the report received a great deal of attention as it appeared to confirm the company knew that one in three teenage girls who had already experienced body-image issues stated that using Instagram made them feel worse. Specifically, the use of filtered images, posting selfies and viewing content with hashtags affected their well-being.
With reference to this and other corporate practices, Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen recently alleged the social media giant put profit before user safety while answering questions from a UK parliament Joint Committee.
In time it’s likely that the wealth generation aspects of the company will move further away from the Facebook application itself and more towards its other brands and applications and so it makes sense to disassociate these from the Facebook name.
3. The Metaverse
In the glitzy event to announce the rebranding of the Facebook corporation to ‘Meta’, Mark Zuckerberg introduced his vision on the ‘Metaverse’ - a social network expanded with virtual reality, augmented reality and 3D spaces which “will let you socialize [sic], learn, collaborate and play in ways that go beyond what we can imagine”.
This ‘vision’ instantly had commentators likening the idea to the concept of the ‘OASIS’ from the novel and movie ‘Ready Player One’ and has led to some speculation, some wild and some more reasoned, as to the potential future of social networking. The premium fear being that Zuckerberg and his colleagues failed to comprehend the dystopian theme of the story which has highlighted the dangers of giving up real life, for an existence in a corporate controlled virtual existence.
The ‘metaverse’ concept is not new and like many of the ideas which have propelled Facebook to its position of one of the richest tech companies in the world, was not originated by Mark Zuckerberg or his colleagues. Indeed, platforms such as Secondlife, have been around since the beginning of the century, but there is something about the current level of reach and adoption of Facebook (now Meta), that suggests we might be in for a major leap in adoption.
Additionally, by naming the company ‘Meta’ the association or even allusion that it somehow ‘owns’ the metaverse is somewhat of a shrewd business move.
As ever, it’s not really possible to discuss Facebook/Meta or indeed social networks in general and conclude with any certainty as to whether they are a net good or evil. One thing is for certain, there are definitely dangers and problems which we need to ensure people are aware of and we need to equip ourselves with the abilities to detect, understand and neutralise; be that privacy concerns, scams or psychological harms.
This article has sought merely to contextualise the current state of Facebook/Meta and we intend to do some deeper dives into some of the areas raised in subsequent articles.