About 20 years ago, Deutsche Telekom bought a UK mobile network called One2One and rebranded it T-Mobile. One2One had been known for low prices and a weak network, so what was this new 'T-Mobile' thing? Well, it had low prices... and a weak network. They changed the name but didn't fix the product.
If your brand has become toxic, and you create a new brand to leave that behind, pretty soon the same old problems will leach into your shiny new identity as well. A marketing person would probably suggest you do this the other way around - you should fix the problems first, and then decide how to communicate that. So why would Facebook move to ‘Meta’ today?
One answer might be that Facebook will not be fixed, whatever that means, any time soon. Two billion people use it every day, posting over 100bn messages - SMS at its peak handled only a quarter of that volume. When you connect two billion people, that includes all the bad people, and more importantly all of our own worst instincts, expressed and channeled in new ways. All social media companies are struggling with that realisation; Facebook now has forty thousand people working on this, which is why all of that research was there to be leaked, but it still isn’t ahead. Complexity, trade-offs, technology limitations, politics, misaligned incentives and structural dysfunction all collide.
But meanwhile, though Facebook wrestles with toxicity (or even if you think it doesn’t care), it worries that teenagers prefer Snap or TikTok, and that Apple’s Tim Cook has his boot on their throat. These questions give Facebook's investment in VR (over $10bn this year, it disclosed in the accounts) and now ‘the metaverse’ existential urgency. If there is something after smart phones, Facebook wants to be the landlord, not a tenant. It wants to set the agenda and invent new experiences (and - let's be honest - it hasn't invented much itself for quite a long time). Of course, today this is as speculative as smartphones were in 2001 - VR seems stuck as a subset of games, and ‘metaverse’ is more mood-board than product. When I wrote about the term a few weeks ago, I described it as the new 'information superhighway' - a bunch of really interesting ideas on a whiteboard, that probably won't actually happen quite like that. There is probably some displacement here too - testing VR goggles is more fun than being shouted at in Congress.
But Facebook is protean- it shifts and turns and surfs user behaviour. It crushed MySpace and jumped from the web to mobile and then to Instagram. I think it would be wrong, or at least limited, to see this as a PR move - Facebook wants to move in a new direction. Perhaps ‘Facebook’ should be left behind as a ‘bad bank’ while Meta now builds quite new experiences again, this time perhaps even planning for those problems.
Indeed, it seems to me that the real rebrand this week wasn't Facebook to Meta but VR to Metaverse. VR is an old and pretty stale term - a dad brand - and Facebook wants to make VR into much more than just a headset and some games. It's trying to make that happen through sheer weight of investment, effort and organisational mass - Moore's law plus money and momentum will pull this into existence out of thin air (it hopes). Rebranding, reconceptualising, and relaunching might be part of that.
The trouble is, tech history is full of companies that dominated one generation trying to seize the next - they tend not to make it. The incumbents very rarely create the future, and the future very rarely comes from a centralised, $10bn project. Indeed, one might suggest that the problem with ‘the information superhighway’ was the word ‘the’ - it came with a presumption that there would be one, single, centralised project, probably built by companies like AT&T and Disney. When people say ‘our company is going to build the metaverse’ I get the same feeling - many of the ideas inside that will probably happen, but not as one project, and not with one name.