Meta: What does Facebook’s new name and ‘metaverse’ mean?

Meta is a new parent company for Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, Oculus, and other holdings

Adam Smith
Friday 29 October 2021 11:28 BST
Facebook rebrands, reveals plan to focus on metaverse

Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, announced yesterday that the company is changing its name to ‘Meta’.

The parent company, which acts as an umbrella over the Facebook app, Instagram, WhatsApp, and Oculus, is an attempt to focus the platforms on building the “metaverse” – a collection of augmented reality and virtual reality software that Mr Zuckerberg hopes will work in harmony with the real world.

Mr Zuckerberg said that “Facebook” did not adequately reflect everything the company did and required a change. “Over time, I hope that we’re seen as a metaverse company,” he said. “And I want to anchor identity on what we’re building towards.”

What does the word ‘Meta’ mean?

‘Meta’ usually means something that refers to itself. TV shows such as Family Guy or Rick and Morty could be considered ‘meta’ because they acknowledge and refer to themselves being television programmes within the context of their own show. The book “If on a winter’s night a traveler” by Italo Calvino is an example of ‘metafiction’ because it describes a reader trying to read a book called ‘If on a winter’s night a traveler’ within its own narrative.

With regards to Facebook, this is an opportunity for the company to essentially re-organise itself. In 2019, Facebook rebranded WhatsApp and Instagram to include “from Facebook” in both of their names.

In his video introducing the name, Mr Zuckerberg said he liked Meta because it’s a Greek word that “symbolizes there’s always more to build”. In the Greek, ‘meta’ meant ‘after’ or ‘beyond’.

Meta was also the name of a startup acquired by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative that used AI to aggregate scientific research - so Facebook already had the rights to the name.

Before that, and the most clear comparison, Google changed the name of its parent company from ‘Google’ to ‘Alphabet’, which includes Google itself but also its array of other operations such as YouTube, Deepmind, and others. Most people, however, still refer to the overarching conglomerate as ‘Google’.

What does the ‘metaverse’ mean?

The word ‘metaverse’ was originally used in Neal Stephenson’s science fiction book Snow Crash from 1992, where human beings interacted with software in a three-dimensional virtual environment.

This is slightly different from ‘cyberspace’, which fictionally is an all-encompassing space compared to the metaverse, which allows people to be aware of their physical environments while interacting with it – akin to the difference between augmented reality (digital objects overlayed on the real world) and virtual reality (interacting solely with digital objects).

More recently, the metaverse has been referenced with regards to Ernest Cline’s novel Ready Player One, and its subsequent film.

The metaverse does not yet exist, and its definition is malleable. In proposing his idea of the metaverse in July 2021, Mark Zuckerberg highlighted a number of capabilities it could have: a space that is persistent, synchronous, spans both the digital and physical worlds, offers “unprecedented interoperability” and contains a fully functioning economy. It is intended as an “embodied internet”, as Mr Zuckerberg described it.

The metaverse does not consist of only one company – although Facebook may hope that it is the most powerful player – and could involve interaction between others such as Roblox, Fortnite, Razer, and more.

In its trial against Apple, Epic Games argued that Fortnite is a metaverse claiming it’s “a phenomenon that transcends gaming” due to the way it hosts concerts and other social interactions.

The video game Second Life was often heralded as a metaverse due to its interactivity and the digital ecosystems that took place within it. Since its inception in 2003, however, graphics and technology has improved drastically and buzz about the metaverse has restarted.

The pandemic also moved many people to interact with the world almost exclusively through digital means – and this is what has propelled companies like Facebook (or Meta) and others to develop its technology.

For now, Meta’s future is no clearer than it was before the rebrand. The company will still try to mediate interaction with virtual reality and augmented reality spaces through its Oculus headsets (a new one called “Cambria” was also announced at the rebranding) and its as-yet unreleased Project Aria which will apparently “add a 3D layer of useful, contextually-relevant and meaningful information on top of the physical world”.

It also will not allow Facebook to escape its current problems: reams of internal documents leaked by whistleblower Frances Haugen that show serious issues in the company’s moderation attempts with regards to hate speech, its ‘VIP’ list that allow celebrities to flout its rules, and the affect Instagram has on the body image of young girls.

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