By Timothy L. O’Brien / Bloomberg Opinion
Mark Zuckerberg wants to rechristen Facebook Inc., giving the financial powerhouse — and social media hothouse — a fresh identity.
While Zuckerberg’s corporate baby has handily weathered prior crises, boasts an enviable global footprint and continues to rake in massive profits, critics have turned it into a pinata for myriad good reasons. Zuckerberg seems to think the best response to all of this is cosmetic.
Zuckerberg, architect of much of the modern digital universe, also may be entertaining thoughts of a seismic corporate overhaul, of course. The Verge first reported that a name change is afoot and is meant to reflect Facebook’s “focus on building the metaverse.” What exactly is this metaverse, you ask?
According to the sci-fi novelist Neal Stephenson, who introduced the term in his 1992 novel, “Snow Crash,” the metaverse is a three-dimensional world where avatars of real people conduct virtual lives. Stephenson has said that when he wrote “Snow Crash,” he was just “making sh*t up.” Then the internet revolution happened, and his book achieved cult status among Silicon Valley titans. As a diehard fan of dystopian masterpieces such as “The Matrix” and “Blade Runner” series, I get the fascination. And pioneers such as Zuckerberg, who actually have resources to try building artificial, alternate worlds — excluding the dystopia, one hopes — well, they spend a lot of time thinking about that stuff.
Zuckerberg may be spending too much time thinking about it. Or he’s thinking about it, intentionally, at the expense of other things that have more immediate importance. I mean, the metaverse is fine as a side hustle, but in the real world where real people live, Facebook has been causing significant damage.
Facebook and its associated platforms are where covid-19 conspiracy theorists and anti-vaxxers do some of their most productive work; where anti-democratic insurrectionists and right-wing thugs choreograph their next moves; where, as the Wall Street Journal reported, young girls develop eating disorders while other users, unchecked, post reams of abusive material “including harassment and incitement to violence,” where, as whistle-blower Frances Haugen told Congress, conflicts between profits and safety are consistently resolved in favor of profits.
Zuckerberg stayed out of the fray when the Journal’s reporting and Haugen’s testimony raised another round of detailed questions and concerns about Facebook’s practices. He left deputies such as Nick Clegg, Facebook’s communications chief and a trusted strategic adviser, to offer inadequate, feckless spin about the social media giant’s operation. When Zuckerberg occasionally emerged, he posted observations about fencing, science, artificial reality hardware that might power his metaverse or a video of himself surfing aboard a hydrofoil while carrying an American flag. When he finally got around to addressing Haugen’s revelations in a lengthy post on his Facebook feed, he channeled Mr. Spock from “Star Trek”: “The argument that we deliberately push content that makes people angry for profit is deeply illogical.”
Now Zuckerberg is engineering a corporate name change. But rebranding a company mired in controversy is never a surefire cure for the maladies unspooling its operations or ravaging its reputation. And companies often adopt new names because of controversy, not because of some sweeping strategic upheaval requiring a makeover. Tobacco giant Philip Morris Companies Inc. rebranded itself as Altria Group Inc. nearly two decades ago following investigations into its knowledge of nicotine’s addictiveness. WorldCom Inc. became MCI Inc. after a fraud scandal and bankruptcy. ValueJet Airlines become AirTran Airways Inc. in the wake of a tragic crash. There are other examples, and companies frequently do change their brands for positive reasons.
I don’t think Zuckerberg wants to house Facebook and his other related properties under a new umbrella brand because the metaverse is upon us and happy days are here again. I think he’s doing it because it’s a distraction; for himself and for those watching his company. He’s doing it so he can continue avoiding the hard decisions that a mature and responsible executive must make when confronted with a corporation that has grown into an incredibly lucrative, unwieldy and sometimes dangerous kraken. He’s young, for one thing, and he also appears to be surrounded by yes-people and other advisers who reinforce his biases or encourage his worst libertarian instincts; a common fate among wealthy or powerful people who lack empathy, self-awareness or the self-confidence to invite and tolerate dissent.
Zuckerberg certainly isn’t immune to the idea of doing good in the world. He and his wife have generously funded and committed almost the entirety of their Facebook shares to an institute dedicated to education, immigration reform, criminal justice, public health and disease prevention. (Ironically, the catastrophic covid-19 predations embedded on Facebook undermine some of their institute’s work.)
Despite such laudable endeavors, Zuckerberg is failing to address problems at Facebook that he has a unilateral ability to fix. That path is also clear. As my colleagues Parmy Olson and Tae Kim have pointed out, Haugen’s testimony provided at least four obvious changes Zuckerberg could embrace:
• Eliminating engagement-based ranking algorithms;
• Heightened content moderation;
• Support for a federal regulator to audit Facebook’s features and algorithms; and
• Routine, transparent data disclosures to researchers.
There’s one thing that’s not on that list: a corporate name change.
Timothy L. O’Brien is a senior columnist for Bloomberg Opinion.