As Mark Zuckerberg announced, Facebook, the company, is now “Meta.” Meta is the parent company of the applications Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, and Oculus.
Many have seen this as an attempt to get out from under the flood of terrible publicity that the company is suffering since the leak of the Facebook papers. In this vein, it looks similar to the constant renaming of a terrible airline (Allegheny, USAir, US Airways) or a cigarette company that attempted to escape its deadly reputation (Philip Morris became Altria).
There is some truth to that. Consider where Meta came from and where it is going, and you can see the arrogance of this choice of name.
What does “meta” mean?
In 2000s slang, “that’s so meta” connotes something that aptly describes itself, much like this very sentence.
It’s a concept that’s quite familiar to me based on my early training as a mathematician and a logician.
The signature move of every mathematician is to look at some phenomenon — say, natural numbers, or algebra, or the space continuum — and generalize, looking for a high-level form of analysis that can make farther-reaching statements about a broader class of objects. Topology, for example, is the study of geometric properties that apply regardless of all sorts of changes in an object, over any number of dimensions.
This can be taken to extremes. My favorite is the “Theory of Abstract Nonsense,” which studies the general properties and reasoning of a class of theories that are, themselves, generalized abstractions about objects and spaces. A statement in this type of theory can be very powerful, but you have to ask yourself, “What exactly is this statement talking about?”
Another classic example are Gödel’s undecidability theorems. Kurt Gödel applied his reasoning to the very logic that underlies all mathematics, and showed that in any system complex enough to do simple arithmetic, you can always create a statement that you can neither prove nor disprove. That’s as meta as you can get: a proof that seeking a proof could be futile.
The point is that going up a level of abstraction is a power move. It is an attempt to say, “You may think what you are working on is important, but I can climb up here where I can see everything, including what you’re working on, and as a result I can see truths that you can’t.”
Zuckerberg and his staff are well aware of this level of mathematical thinking. When they say they are “meta,” they are not just talking about the virtual world called the “metaverse.” They are saying “We are operating at a higher level than the rest of you, and we will have insight, and control, of a lot more of the digital world from that vantage point.”
Meta’s strategy for Facebook and Instagram
Consider Facebook and Instagram in the context of Meta’s broader strategy.
Facebook and Instagram create nearly all of the revenue.
Facebook and Instagram also create nearly all of the problems — child exploitation, viral misinformation, surveillance by authoritarian regimes, body image issues, and so on.
By focusing on the Metaverse, Zuckerberg is signaling that he’d like to move beyond those old applications and spend his efforts on a new world that doesn’t (yet) suffer from the old problems. Of course, he’s going to bankroll that development with the massive cash rolling in from Facebook and Instagram.
How much of Meta’s focus will be on fixing the problems of Facebook and Instagram? As much as PR and regulators require — and not an iota more.
Every tech company I’ve ever heard of — including the hundreds and hundreds that we followed at Forrester Research — spent nearly all of its energy on the future, not the current set of products.
As the old joke goes, “Why could God create the world in six days? Because he didn’t have an installed base.”
Solving the problems of the old applications is never a big focus. Even if they generate most of the revenue, so long as you make sure it’s hard for people to leave, it’s always more strategic to focus on the future. After all, you need to make sure that you’re not disrupted by some future-focused startup.
The name Meta is Zuckerberg’s way of saying “I’m not really even thinking about Facebook and Instagram that much any more.” The next obvious move is for him to put some other executive in charge of these troubled applications so that he can work on the far more exciting metaverse.
The highly lucrative pollution that Facebook and Instagram create? That’s about to be somebody else’s problem.
And if that’s not arrogant, I don’t know what is.