What Meta means: Pivot to the future may not take attention off present problems

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November 01, 2021 5:00 AM

Metaverse is the internet furnished in 3D for the user with the help of virtual- and augmented-reality technologies, among others, instead of merely being accessed through a screen.

But, many believe it is also about putting some sort of psychological distance between the company and the train of controversies that have seriously dented its image.But, many believe it is also about putting some sort of psychological distance between the company and the train of controversies that have seriously dented its image.

Facebook Inc is now Meta Platform Inc. What underlies this rechristening? It represents, without doubt, a paradigm-shift for the company and—given how its primary offering, Facebook, leads the social media space by light years—for social media itself. With its ‘metaverse’ pivot, it ushers in a new era of social media.

Metaverse is the internet furnished in 3D for the user with the help of virtual- and augmented-reality technologies, among others, instead of merely being accessed through a screen. You can shop, meet, play, and even work in virtual environments that “you can go inside of”, as Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg puts it. Acquisitions over the years—most famously, that of Oculus—have been strong hints that the company is headed towards making the social media experience more immersive. The company promises, at least, eventually, seamless flitting between the life offline and a virtual doppelganger.

But, many believe it is also about putting some sort of psychological distance between the company and the train of controversies that have seriously dented its image. That hardly seems the case, though. The latest Facebook exposé, by a former employee, may have been further evidence for those that argue the company has let pursuit of profit recklessly erode democracy. But, rechristening seems no salve, or at the very least, to be of questionable efficacy as a diversionary tactic; any such move surely can’t address the very nature of the space the company operates in and how the technologies to serve this space get built?

Indeed, given the pivot to the future the company promises, it may, some experts say, only exacerbate the concerns voiced so far. Greater access to personal data could ensure the world gets further enmeshed in the interplay between the technologies social media companies (Facebook rivals have been also aggressively pursuing such tech) use and proliferation of online misinformation and the entrenchment of polarisation, which, in turn, exacerbate many problems in our lives offline. Whether toxic content will be regulated, or whether indulging in that toxicity gets easier is difficult to say just yet. The former demands a radical rethink of how the company uses the data profile it builds of users.

To be sure, Zuckerberg has pledged privacy standards, parental controls and data-use disclosures—all sore points for the company historically. But, with firm indications that the leadership and the corporate structure won’t be changing drastically, whether Meta takes a different route from Facebook Inc remains to be seen. Bloomberg had recently reported, on the basis of company documents, that “Facebook’s Integrity team, the group tasked with stemming the flow of harmful posts, was fighting a losing battle to demote problematic content” though the company had said that it isn’t “accurate to suggest that the social media platform encourages bad content”.

What the metaverse pivot could do is reduce Meta’s dependence on the mobile platform to reach users, especially younger ones. Facebook, the platform, is nearly bled out when it comes to this demography. The reliance on AR/VR gadgets, many from its own stable, could steer users away from smartphones as the deliverer of their lives online. Bear in mind how stung the social media behemoth was by Apple making it harder to mine user-data from iPhone users. Regulators worldwide must work to find such partners in the tech world to limit future and present harm.

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