What is the metaverse? Why is Facebook rebranding itself as Meta Platforms? And what does it have to do with the 1990s cyberpunk novel Snow Crash?
The most obvious answer is that Mark Zuckerberg’s rebranding is a desperate response to two entangled issues:
1. The Facebook Papers have suggested that company leadership knew, and basically didn’t give a shit about, the corrosive impact Facebook’s social media platform was having on mental health and global political discourse.
2. For some time now, Facebook has also been hemorrhaging users and facing a particularly steep decline in engagement from teenagers (who are its most lucrative advertising market) with internal projections estimating a further projected “drop [of] 45 percent over the next two years [in teen users].”
Faced with bad publicity and investor worries about its flagship product, it’s no wonder that Zuckerberg wanted to rebrand. By why “Meta?”
Etymologically, the prefix meta is a “word-forming element of Greek origin meaning 1. ‘after, behind; among, between,’ 2. ‘changed, altered,’ 3. ‘higher, beyond’,” which has produced a host of common terms, such as metaphysics, metaphor, metabolism, meteor, and so on, and so in this case it might as well represent “metastasizing metadata.”
For Facebook, however, one of the advantages of the word “Meta” is that it is an already ubiquitous (and even trending) term/prefix. Picking a semi-generic term functions to camouflage search results due to algorithmic confusion (e.g., Google’s transformation into the ultra-generic “Alphabet”). In this, Zuckerberg and company seem to have overshot insofar as it turns out that there is already a computer company called “Meta.”
But the name change goes deeper. For a while now, Zuckerberg has been pitching Facebook’s transition into the “metaverse.” A term which at first pass (meta + [uni]verse) suggests a digital “otherworld” or perhaps a hypercapitalist afterlife.
In what follows, I’ll explore the meaning and context of the metaverse. It matters because, if you are reading this virtual blog post, you are in some sense already living through a dystopia into which Zuckerberg and company, if they have it their will, will drag you even deeper. Follow me over the fold for further elaboration.Continue reading