It’s been a rough couple of years for the company formerly known as Facebook. Once upon a time, this was a site used primarily for viewing your aunt’s new kittens. Now it’s being implicated in genocide, knowingly harming teenagers’ mental health, and unravelling Western democracy.

It comes as no surprise then that Mark Zuckerberg thinks the social media giant formerly known as Facebook Inc. had a rebrand. Enter ‘Meta’ — a company committed to building a ‘metaverse’, the ‘next chapter of social connection’. The apps held under this umbrella company will stay the same; the motive is to put distance between Facebook’s tarnished name and the future it envisions — The Metaverse.

What’s a Metaverse?

Meta describes it as: ‘3D spaces [that] will let you socialize, learn, collaborate and play in ways that go beyond what we can imagine’. Combining virtual reality (headsets, smart glasses) and augmented reality technology, Meta wants to create a new virtual reality. This is all a lot of tech jargon, but it becomes much clearer with a few examples. Imagine a history lesson on Ancient Egypt being taught at a primary school. The teacher asks all the children to put their smart glasses on. Instantly, they find themselves outside the towering pyramids and the class continues within a virtual setting. Or imagine you’re learning to drive. Again, you put on a headset and maybe hold a wheel (like a Wii wheel), get into a virtual car with a teacher, and voila! you’re learning how to drive. The metaverse is a place of exciting possibilities. From socialising to learning, everything is within arm’s reach. But most importantly, you can also buy and sell things.

It’s easy, judging from the stilted promotional videos Meta have released, to dismiss the metaverse as the latest ravings of Mr Zuckerberg. But as the above examples show, it’s actually an incredibly viable business idea. The world, especially after Covid-19, has become a lot more reliant on technology. Universities are largely partly online, and business meetings increasingly happen over Zoom or Microsoft Teams. Would it not be the logical step forward to have virtual avatars at business meetings, as opposed to grainy Zoom calls? Given that the world is heading in that direction anyway, that’s the bet Meta is making. The early bird gets the worm.

Meta’s Frightening Potential

It’s quite easy to envision Meta’s potential. If it becomes the first company to make this augmented reality possible, it can capitalise from the sales of the hardware (headsets, smart glasses) and software (Horizon workrooms) needed to build it. What Apple is to mobile phones, Meta could be to the metaverse — eventually monopolising it. The idea is worrying, as it’s a monopoly on several levels. It wouldn’t just control the market in virtual reality. Meta could determine what’s sold to you, what you see, what you hear, and even who you talk to.

Given Facebook’s track record, this makes for grim reading. Ever since the Cambridge Analytica scandal (where millions of Facebook users’ data was improperly obtained to build voter profiles), Facebook has come to be seen as a force for ill. The rebrand clearly isn’t only about the company’s broader commitment to building the metaverse, it’s crucially also about distancing itself from the myriad scandals that have enveloped it. And the scandals are weighty. Most recently, came the shocking revelations of what has become known as the ‘Facebook Papers’. Thousands of pages of documents, leaked by whistleblower Frances Haugen, reveal that the company has exaggerated its efforts to reduce harmful content. Facebook’s algorithms have been caught red-handed in exacerbating poor mental health in teenage users, accelerating political polarisation, and fueling misinformation and conspiracy theories. These are not the kind of charges that will magically disappear. But a brand-new image will help mitigate the impact considerably.

Metaverse is Still Facebook — But Worse

The question is: will metaverse be a more invasive, toxic version of Facebook?

It’s a nauseating prospect, and unless regulators and politicians act quickly, it would seem so. And this is where the other portion of the blame lies: with governments worldwide. For far too long, politicians have failed to act, letting Facebook monopolise social media, and, by extension, how we communicate. They’ve completely failed to understand the toxicity of the algorithms used, allowing Facebook to rip social cohesion and democracy apart for profit.

It’s gross negligence. Governments should not allow Facebook to introduce the metaverse without demanding that it fix the problems it’s birthed in the physical universe. It’s clear that strict regulation of social media giants is necessary. Instead of launching a lucrative rebrand, what Facebook should do for its public relations is cooperate with governments. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if five decades from now the social media epidemic is viewed in much the same way as smoking: addictive and bad for your health.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. Whilst a metaverse owned by Zuckerberg is a chilling thought, it’s unlikely to be the paradigm shift he hopes for. Will the metaverse replace the physical universe? No. Recent history is littered with examples of promising technology that failed to live up to expectations. When the Kindle came out physical publishing was written off as dead. Yet books are still here with us because far too many people love the feel and weight of a good book. Similarly, no one, (or very few people) I’m sure, would rather go to a virtual restaurant or a virtual club in place of the phenomenal thrill of a live experience.

The metaverse will be what Kindle is to books rather than what the phone spelt for the fax machine — a convenient option but hardly sufficient. Zuckerberg, wrongly, assumes that the physical world exists mainly to access the virtual one. Not many people think this way. Zuckerberg’s short-sightedness and our politicians’ carelessness cannot be permitted anymore. Otherwise, that polarised and hateful discourse that has become so commonplace on Facebook and Instagram will become our entire reality.

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