Meta: Facebook Enters The Metaverse
On October 28, Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook — the company that owns the social media portal of the same name, the audiovisual platform Instagram, and the instant messaging application WhatsApp — was changing its name to Meta. Through the branding change, Zuckerberg hopes to improve his brand, a pivotal yet contentious player in the development and adoption of Web 2.0, by catapulting it into the world of Web 3.0. This may not be the first Web2 company to integrate Web3 elements, but it is certainly the biggest so far.
Does a name change, however, imply a change in approach? Or will the social conglomerate’s ghosts from the Internet’s present, such as privacy concerns, dangerous advertising, and the alleged blurring of media and state lines, continue to haunt its users?
Meta and its New Possibilities
At the announcement last fall, Zuckerberg held a presentation featuring Horizon Home and Horizon Workrooms. These Virtual Reality (VR) environments are online spaces for friends, family, classmates, and co-workers to interact together. On December 9, Meta re-released in the US and Canada Facebook Horizon, the wider digital space, as Horizon Worlds.
Facebook Messenger is now optimized for VR support, eventually ready to hold more immersive conversations while wearing the headset. The plans also include Augmented Reality (AR) upgrades and a machine-learning AI-enhanced suite for developers.
Zuckerberg predicts that within the next decade, this mixed-reality environment “will reach a billion people, host hundreds of billions of dollars in digital commerce, and support jobs for millions of creators and developers.” That said, although businesses of all sizes can continue to sell physical and digital products and services to customers worldwide in the Web 2.0 realm, businesses utilizing Web 3.0 can only target these audiences if they invest in the necessary equipment to access these virtual spaces and advertising mediums.
Safety in Horizon Worlds
Not only are the basic commerce and leisure models of old-school Facebook slipping through Web iterations, it seems historic, unsavory behavior and sexual abuse patterns have already crept into the Meta metaverse.
A female Horizon Worlds beta tester reported that a stranger groped her in the game’s public plaza as early as November 2021. In response, Meta suggested she use the “Safe Zone” tool to activate a temporary bubble that prevents unwanted interactions. But what happens when the abuse is excessive and occurs too quickly?
Later in December, researcher Nina Jane Patel posted that she was verbally and sexually assaulted by three-to-four male avatars within 60 seconds of joining the portal. Many of the comments she received were that she should not have used a female avatar, that she was “[crying] for attention”, and that the assault was “not real” because it occurred in the metaverse.
Facebook’s Encryption Problems
Meanwhile, on Meta’s Facebook, the consequences of people’s online presence extend beyond the virtual world and the safety of any bubble, with private messages no longer entirely private.
Following the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, it was revealed that Nebraska investigators obtained search warrants from the social media app Messenger. The officials were looking for conversations between a teenager and her mother about the purchase and use of miscarriage-inducing medication.
Although this was a legal warrant, the incident occurred before Roe v. Wade, and the charges were more against using the products after a medically safe period in the pregnancy. The investigation highlights privacy issues that hackers, individuals, and entities acting against the law could easily circumvent.
Other communication apps, such as Signal, Telegram, and Meta’s own WhatsApp, include end-to-end encryption by default. The option is available for Facebook and its sister app, Instagram. However, it is not the default, putting less tech-savvy users at a disadvantage.
Instagram and Its Overuse
Meta’s Instagram is accused of exacerbating mental health issues among its youngest users. A group of general attorneys began investigating the app in November 2021 for its efforts to over-engage children and teenagers.
In January, a California family sued Meta and competitor Snap Inc. for the suicide of an 11-year-old child. Allegedly, the child was “addicted” to Instagram and Snapchat. Later, in the first week of June, plaintiffs filed eight complaints throughout the country alleging that excessive exposure to the platform has resulted in mental disorders in adolescents. Failure to warn, defective design, negligence, and fraud are examples of such claims.
Meanwhile, Meta has been implementing tools for parents to set time limits and break reminders, developing AI to prevent children under 13 from joining, hiding or censoring potentially sensitive content, and providing resources on mental health, eating disorders, and misinformation.
Meta Platforms vs METAx
METAx LLC filed a trademark infringement and unfair competition complaint against Meta Platforms on July 19. METAx LLC is a small company, operating as META for over 12 years, focused on social immersion in virtual spaces. They have brought their AR and VR experiences to festivals like Coachella.
Founder Justin Bolognino claims that Zuckerberg’s rebranding has confused customers and decimated his business in a short period of time. Bolognino is represented by Pryor Cashman LLP’s Dyan Finguerra-DuCharme. Meta Platforms, on the other hand, is represented by Kirkland & Ellis’s Dale Cendali and Claudia Ray.
However, IP experts maintain that the name “Meta” is ineffective as a trademark. The Meta Platforms team claims that the title alone merely refers to immersive technology in general. If Meta Platforms wins this case, other companies could feel entitled to use “Meta” as a term in their names. This brings us to the final section:
The Metaverse: Beyond Meta Platforms
Fabio Moioli from Microsoft defines the metaverse as “not a single virtual world but a network of interconnected virtual worlds”. Users can create and interact with other environments, intuitively, from any device, leading an integrated life between the physical and the digital realms.
Meta Platforms appear to have a monolithic and centralized approach to community development, where they have access to users’ data, conversations, and attention. In the very near future, Meta’s immersive services will no longer require a Facebook account to access. Those who still do not trust the company under any name can opt for decentralized, crypto-friendly platforms like Decentraland and The Sandbox.