After teasing us for months with talk of a corporate name change and of a “metaverse” that will bring physically distant people closer together, Facebook sent shock waves around the world by …
Just kidding, folks! Facebook founder/CEO Mark Zuckerberg shocked precisely no one who was following the company’s October 28 Connect conference. Instead, his company did what it always does: something predictable, clunky, and imitative. It’s staking a claim in the “metaverse”; ergo, the new corporate name is Meta. (Product names, including the Facebook social-media platform, remain unchanged.) From the new About page: “The metaverse is the next evolution of social connection. Our company’s vision is to help bring the metaverse to life, so we are changing our name to reflect our commitment to this future.”
If you think you’ve seen logos like this one before, you’re right. Read James I. Bowie’s analysis of how the Airbnb “loop” logo, introduced in 2016 to general disdain, has triumphed in the design world.
The name is so uninspired that it inevitably provoked many, many quips about “meh-ta” on Twitter. (Apologies to the families of conductor Zubin Mehta, editor Sonny Mehta, and all other Mehtas.) If you didn’t find it boring, you may have found it more than a little creepy: maybe it’s meta as in “the metadata that Facebook collects so it can target us,” to paraphrase one of my Twitter followers. Or this:
Obviously rebranding as Meta is part of a master plan wherein all data heretofore harvested by FB will now—-by definition—-be metadata and therefore totally safe to leak to whomever. Even better, every politician now knows exactly what metadata is— Toby Murray (@tobycmurray) October 28, 2021
Meta is neither a very bad name nor a very good name—it’s no Alphabet, which I still admire. Instead, it’s typical of big-company branding efforts: It’s classical in origin and it evokes no image, sound, taste, or emotion. It won’t offend anyone, but it won’t thrill anyone, either. Names like Meta are usually extruded by a committee or decreed from on high; I’m betting on the latter process in this case. (Keep in mind that in his 37 years on the planet, Zuckerberg has never had to report to a boss.)
Which is not to say that meta isn’t a richly productive word-part, in English and other languages.* In Classical Greek, it originally signified “along with” or “after,” and later took on meanings of “above,” “beyond,” and even “change”: a metaphor transfers meaning; metamorphosis is a change in structure. In recent years, meta has been used to indicate something self-referential—metafiction is fiction that emphasizes its own constructedness—but Metamucil, the laxative brand introduced in 1934, isn’t “mucil about mucil,” as this blog post whimsically theorizes. (The meta in Metamucil supposedly means “change.”) Read more about meta’s many meanings in this 2012 Visual Thesaurus column by Ben Zimmer, and in Ben’s Twitter thread about the Facebook announcement.
Some thoughts on Facebook's announcement that the company is hereby known as @Meta. As @pardesoteric wrote for @WIRED, the new name is meant to signal a future for Facebook that is "beyond social media, and beyond all the bad news." 1/9 https://t.co/vuulGibnwY— Ben Zimmer (@bgzimmer) October 28, 2021
But Zuckerberg et al. don’t appear to be interested in meta’s metapotential. For them, the name points in just one direction: metaverse.
Metaverse has a known origin story: It was coined, as capital-M Metaverse, by author Neal Stephenson in his 1992 science-fiction novel Snow Crash, where it signified “a computer-generated environment within which users can interact with each other and their surroundings.” (The definition is the OED’s.) Zuckerberg is reportedly a fan of Snow Crash, but it’s worth noting that in Stephenson’s telling, the Metaverse is not a happy place. As Daniel Villareal writes in Newsweek:
The title of Stephenson's novel refers to a dangerous occurrence in his Metaverse. When a person’s connection in the Metaverse is corrupted by a computer virus, a digital drug or a hacking attack, it can cause the user to “snow crash,” effectively harming their online avatar and inflicting brain damage upon the real-world user. Stephenson said he took the name of his book from the image of black-and-white static appearing on a broken TV set.
Twitter users have noted the similarities between Stephenson's Metaverse and Zuckerberg’s.
In borrowing (to be charitable) “metaverse” and twisting its meaning, Zuckerberg is repeating his own history. Facebook itself—originally “The Facebook”—took its name from the lower-case face books, containing student photos, that every college used to distribute at the start of the academic year. The Facebook brand family eventually included a lot of blandly descriptive names: Facebook Messenger, Facebook News Feed, Facebook Portal, Facebook Watch. You can tell which brand names are acquisitions—Oculus, WhatsApp, Instagram—because they evince at least a spark of originality.
Just to be clear, I don’t quibble with Zuckerberg’s decision to construct an umbrella brand name that’s distinct from Facebook. It makes sense from a business-structure perspective and from a PR perspective. From a naming perspective, though, I’d say that Meta falls short—if my expectations for this company weren’t already too low to allow disappointment.
I’ll give the last meta-comment to my fellow name developer Anthony Shore:
Changing your name is not the same as changing your company. Blackwater, Xe, Academi, Constellis: Same shit, different name.— Anthony Shore (@operativewords) October 28, 2021
* Meta is also a personal name and a nickname for “Margaretta,” especially in the Baltic region. The most famous Meta I can think of is Meta Carpenter Wilde (1907–1994), who worked as the director Howard Hawks’s secretary and who had a 30-year love affair with William Faulkner. I haven’t been able to track down how she pronounced her name, but an author named Meta Wagner pronounces her first name with a long A in the first syllable, to rhyme with beta.