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‘I don’t know who’s going to trust metaverse’: Professors, students weigh in on Facebook’s decision to rebrand

| Friday, November 12, 2021

Facebook is launching into the metaverse. On the Notre Dame campus, some are ready to board the virtual reality spaceship, but others are skeptical of the social media giant’s timing and intentions.

Following Facebook, Inc.’s announcement on Oct. 28 that the company is renaming itself to Meta, University professors and students say they expect Facebook’s decision to focus on expanding into the “metaverse” to spark long-term growth for the company, though some questioned the timing of the renaming amid controversy sparked by reports about leaked documents published in the Wall Street Journal.

The move, which shifts Facebook, Inc.’s brands such as Instagram, WhatsApp and Oculus under the new name Meta Platforms, Inc., places a focus on the company’s desire to move beyond social media and into the metaverse, a set of virtual spaces where people can interact with “other people who are not in the same physical space,” according to a Meta press release.

“We believe the metaverse will be the successor to the mobile internet. We’ll be able to feel present — like we are right there with people — no matter how far apart we actually are,” chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg said at the 2021 Facebook Connect conference on Oct. 28.

The renaming has not come without pushback, as Meta navigates the aftermath of whistleblower Frances Haugen leaking a trove of internal documents. The Wall Street Journal began publishing reports on the documents, known as the Facebook Files,” in September, detailing controversial practices. The files provided evidence that the site is exempting high-profile users from some of its community standards, downplaying findings that Instagram is harmful to teenage girls and struggling to locate and remove posts that violate its rules.

‘They can’t even get what they’re doing now correct’: Professor questions motives behind rebranding

Kirsten Martin, a professor of technology ethics at the University, called Facebook’s decision to rebrand during this period of intense scrutiny “tone-deaf,” citing a reported lack of credence by Facebook to critiques from regulators, scholars and advocates.

Martin said the rebranding effort is likely a distraction to shift the conversation surrounding Facebook away from the Facebook Files. Companies are not unlimited in resources, so when they start to grow one area or department, that usually involves cutting back elsewhere, she said. 

Citing the MIT Technology Review podcast “I Was There When,” Martin said Facebook is often criticized for not adequately staffing and funding their integrity groups while their advertising departments always seem to be well-resourced. For this reason, she said she does not understand the company’s decision to downplay its critics and expand.

“They can’t even get what they’re doing now correct,” Martin said. “I don’t know why they want to grow into a new sphere that actually has fewer guidelines as to what to do.”

Senior Isabella Camacho, president of the marketing club, questioned the timing of the rebranding, saying a company as large as Facebook does not make decisions this large at a critical time like this out of coincidence.

“I think it’s not a coincidence that they’re doing it when they’re doing it,” Camacho said.

Tim Weninger, an associate professor of engineering who specializes in machine learning and social media, said it is acceptable for a company as large as Meta to focus on multiple large tasks simultaneously. 

“I think that a company the size of Facebook, or Meta now, is fine to try to do lots of different things all at the same time,” Weninger said. “I don’t begrudge them that they’re always looking for new profit opportunities, especially with, for example, the new Windows 11 [rolling] out.”

Zuckerberg acknowledged the problems his platform is dealing with and addressed the backlash he anticipated Meta would face during his keynote speech at Connect. 

“So for many people, I’m just not sure there ever will be a good time to focus on the future,” Zuckerberg said. “But I also know that there are a lot of you who feel the same way I do. We live for what we’re building, and while we make mistakes, we’ll keep learning and building and moving forward.”

‘This is an insane profit opportunity’: Professors, students say metaverse offers potential for big growth

Senior Munyen Loi has been covering Meta stock since the beginning of the semester as part of Notre Dame’s applied investment management course, where students manage a live equity portfolio worth more than $27 million, according to the course website.

Despite the heavy criticisms Meta has been facing lately, Loi said he envisions the company will continue to grow and sees the metaverse as a potentially massive profit opportunity later in the decade.

“They have a strong first mover advantage in AR (augmented reality) and VR (virtual reality),” Loi said. “So Oculus is going to be the near-term focus, I think, and that will fundamentally change the landscape of social media and also how the company functions because, from a profit-making perspective, the metaverse is an insane idea.”

Because the metaverse appears to be based around virtual and augmented reality, Martin said she expects the expansion to give Meta ownership of the hardware required to operate the programs and networks Meta will release as part of the metaverse, whereas currently Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp can be downloaded and accessed on devices not owned by Meta.

After the release of Windows 11 by Microsoft, Weninger said he believes a lot of technology will be shifting toward augmented reality and a social cyber presence over the next two decades. And although he expects future offerings involving Oculus to offset potential decline from Facebook as a social media network, he anticipates nations to begin regulating the Facebook site in ways that could hinder its ability to grow and keep users.

Where does Meta go from here?

Weninger said one of Meta’s most pressing issues is its failure to curb misinformation and hate speech in languages other than English. He said the struggles Meta’s artificial intelligence algorithms experience when trying to moderate non-English media result primarily from a lack of data.

“So to learn, you have to give [the algorithm] thousands of examples of this hate speech in order for the algorithm to actually learn ‘Oh, I see, this is what hate speech actually is,’” Weninger said. “Just for English, and maybe Spanish and French, we have enough data to do that, but in the thousands of other languages, they just don’t have enough data.” 

As Facebook continues to navigate moderating misinformation and inflammatory content, Martin said the company has an obligation to combat misinformation and hate speech on the site because they promote the content and make money off it.

“The issue with this recommendation algorithm is that they’re purposely trying to profit from it,” Martin said.

Martin likened Meta and the technology industry’s quest to curb misinformation to the car industry’s approach to improving the safety of cars in the 1970s and 1980s.

“[Car companies] literally said, ‘It’s not our job to make [cars] safe because our job is just to make cars,’” she said. “Eventually they kind of realized, ‘Oh, actually, we’re the only ones that can put safety in the cars because we’re the only ones that know how to do it.’”

As Meta faces numerous problems concerning the social media sector of the company, Martin said she fails to see who will believe the metaverse decision to be in good faith.

“I don’t know who’s going to trust metaverse,” she said.

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About Ryan Peters

Ryan is a sophomore in Knott Hall who hails from Lake Forest, Illinois. He is majoring in business analytics and minoring in constitutional studies. He currently serves as an associate news editor for The Observer. Follow him on Twitter @peterrsryan.

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