Facebook has a new name. This week, CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced at the Facebook Connect conference that the company is changing its name to Meta. The title comes from something Facebook has been calling the metaverse—a VR/AR experience that allows users to interact remotely with a mix of virtual and in-person elements. It's a very deliberate change, of course, for the company, and one that comes at a time when Facebook is embroiled in a weeks-long controversy about how its product may harm its users. But while the company may have a new name, that doesn't mean its problems are over.
This week on Gadget Lab, WIRED senior writer Arielle Pardes joins us to talk about Facebook's rebranding, its push into the metaverse, and the challenges that come with that shift.
Read Arielle Pardes’ story about Facebook’s name change. Here’s Lauren’s story about Facebook’s metaverse ambitions. Read WIRED’s series about the Facebook papers. Also check out Peter Rubin’s stories about Facebook’s camera glasses and Horizon Workrooms. Here’s how to change the algorithmic ranking of Facebook’s newsfeed. And here’s how to delete your account, permanently.
Arielle recommends the new Dune movie. Mike recommends the most recent episode of The War on Cars podcast with food writer Alicia Kennedy. Lauren recommends WIRED’s story package about the Facebook papers.
Arielle Pardes can be found on Twitter @pardesoteric. Lauren Goode is @LaurenGoode. Michael Calore is @snackfight. Bling the main hotline at @GadgetLab. The show is produced by Boone Ashworth (@booneashworth). Our theme music is by Solar Keys.
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Lauren Goode: Mike.
Michael Calore: Lauren.
LG: Mike, what is your favorite part of the metaverse?
MC: It's the part where you log off and go outside.
LG: I wish I could disagree, but I can't. I agree, wholeheartedly. Well, for the sake of this podcast though, can we maybe just step into the metaverse for a little bit?
MC: All right. Let me put on my Oculus glasses and I'll be right there.
LG: All right. Activated.
[Gadget Lab intro theme music plays.]
LG: Hey, everyone. Welcome to the metaverse. I mean, welcome to Gadget Lab. I'm Lauren Goode. I'm a senior writer at WIRED.
MC: And I'm Michael Calore. I'm a senior editor at WIRED.
LG: We're also joined in the metaverse by WIRED senior writer Arielle Pardes, who joins us from … where are you, Arielle?
Arielle Pardes: Does it really matter in 2021 where we are, if we're all in the metaverse?
LG: No, you could be anywhere right now. You could be in a forest. You could be in Oakland. You could be in Nazare.
AP: Let's just say I'm inside of the mind of Mark Zuckerberg.
LG: Well, we're talking about Facebook again. In case you haven't been refreshing your newsfeed this week, there's a lot of news out of Facebook. They had their annual software developers conference, held virtually on Thursday. We saw a bunch of new stuff that is supposed to enable developers to build things for this idea of the metaverse. We heard a little bit more about Mark Zuckerberg's vision for what the metaverse will look like. And we heard about Facebook's name change. I don't even know if we should be calling it Facebook right now. Arielle, what are we supposed to be calling Facebook? Tell us about this.
AP: The company formerly known as Facebook is now called Meta, as in metaverse, as in a metastasizing cancer, as AOC tweeted today. This is supposed to signal that the company is not just a social media company anymore. It's not just the News Feed. It's not just Instagram. It's in fact a company. And that's all about the metaverse.
LG: Back up just a little bit, because earlier this week, Facebook reported its third-quarter earnings, and it talked about how it was going to break apart some of the top line for another one of its divisions, right? So there are all these different products and divisions of Facebook, tell us how that works and how it's going to be broken out now.
AP: The Facebook that you know right now, which Facebook sometimes calls the family of apps—Instagram, WhatsApp, Oculus, stuff like that—is now going to be broken into this division that it calls the Family of Apps. On the other hand, it has this new thing called Facebook Reality Labs, which is the new home for all of its products that deal with the metaverse and whatever else the future of computing looks like.
MC: Can we just take a moment? And I know we've done this on the show before, but can we define what the metaverse is? Because we all sort of had an idea of what it was, going into Facebook Connect today, and I think it's probably changed.
LG: I'm happy to take a stab at this, because I just went on the BBC earlier this week at an ungodly hour in the morning, Pacific Coast time, to talk about this. My answer was, it depends on who you ask, but the most consistent description I've heard from different technologists is that it is the successor to the mobile internet. The way in which we experienced the web 20 years ago was very different from the way we have experienced it over the past decade or so with mobile phones in our hands, and the way in which we share information with apps and pull or receive information from apps. And the metaverse is kind of the next version of this, where it extends beyond, or sort of transcends, the current internet.
It's still a place where apps run and exist, and developers will be building for the metaverse, but it's supposed to create this kind of persistent experience of connectivity, where you go from one virtual space to the next, and you can bring your digital assets with you from space to space. And like you experience people not as these little boxes in Zoom, like we are right now as we tape this podcast, but they are around you. "It's an embodied internet," Mark Zuckerberg said. It sounds so dystopian.
AP: A lot of what we thought was this idea that you'll have an avatar that moves through various spaces online. You might be working remotely on a different planet in the metaverse, and then you might move into a sort of shopping mall where you get to buy things, like real things, you're paying real digital money for. And then you might move into a video game, and you bring a sort of cohesive identity with you through all these spaces, but they're not really physical spaces. It's kind of pushing the physical world into the digital one.
MC: So this is actually used for NFTs. Like if I want to buy an NFT hat, I can wear it in the metaverse.
AP: Exactly. And it really explains a lot of the other Zuckerbergian ambitions that we've heard about lately. It explains why the company has an interest in developing cryptocurrency, explains why the company's put so much effort into the backend interoperability, if it's various apps. All of this starts to make sense when you think about a company that wants to be more than just social media and messaging and wants to actually be the place that you spend all of your time when you're online.
LG: So I think in the second half of the show, we're going to get back to this idea of the metaverse. We're going to talk about what it takes to plug into the metaverse and who the different players are that are building stuff for this next layer of the internet. But I want to go back quickly to the name change because Arielle, you've written about this for WIRED a couple of times this week, and there've been a lot of references to Google—Google having done this and become Alphabet a few years ago. What actually is the significance of Facebook changing its name right now?
AP: There are couple of reasons that corporations would change their name. Google renamed itself Alphabet to kind of signal a corporate restructuring and to show that the company wasn't just a search engine, it has all these other entities as well. Apple did something similar when it put out the iPhone and it became just Apple, whereas before it was Apple Computers. There's benefits to corporations renaming themselves to clarify what they do or how they're structured, and certainly Meta has some elements of that.
But Facebook is also in one of the most difficult moments in its entire history. Like there's never been more scrutiny, both from Congress, from the public, from Wall Street, on this company. There's one clear benefit in changing the name, which is that it allows you to change the narrative. Of course, the company is still the same. Mark Zuckerberg is still the same, but by calling it something else, you have the benefit of maybe distancing yourself from some of the bad press, from some of the bad sentiment, that exists with the name Facebook and sort of moving into a space where people might be willing to give the company a bit more trust … maybe.
MC: And the primary app is still going to be called Facebook. Like we're not going to open our phones tomorrow and it's going to refresh, and all of a sudden we're going to be tapping on an app called Meta.
AP: Right. The app remains Facebook, but Facebook the company is now Meta. And I think that's really important, actually. A lot of the bad sentiment around Facebook, which is one of the most recognizable brands in the world, really goes back to that blue app. I mean, people have beef with Instagram. People have beef with Oculus. People have beef with WhatsApp, but not really to the same extent that the Facebook app has left a bad taste in people's mouth. And so I think a clear benefit in this name change is that you get to kind of erase some of that bad taste by saying, "No, no, no, our brand is something totally new. The thing you hate is that app that your parents uses to post weird memes. Like that's something totally different. We, the company, are Meta, and we're bigger than that. We're better than that. We're headed in a new direction." And whether or not people buy that, I think, remains to be seen, but that's certainly the intention.
LG: Do we have any sense of what other names Facebook had been considering?
AP: I don't. I heard a lot of rumors. For example, I heard that Horizon could be the name. That's what they call some of their new metaverse VR apps. Interestingly, Horizon is the name of the big evil tech company in HBO's new Scenes From a Marriage. So I was hoping that would be their new name, so I could make some memes, but you can't always get what you want.
LG: We heard a lot of new names today beyond Meta, or at least we heard project names and code names. On the hardware side, there's Project Cambria, which is a new high-end heads-up display that Facebook's been working on. It's still in the prototype phase. There's Project Aria, which is their AR glasses. They've also talked about Project Nazare, and I have to be honest, I'm not a hundred percent sure what that is. I have to go back and rewatch that part of the presentation. And then within the virtual environment, you mentioned Horizon, Arielle, but like, there's a lot going on there.
It's like you use the Oculus Quest to get into your home, then you go into Horizon, which now has Workrooms, which is the virtual Zoom thing that our friend Peter Rubin did a couple of months ago. It was part of a Facebook demo. It just feels like this is all part of this land grab for Facebook to lay claim over parts of the metaverse. And all the while it's saying it's going to be a very open experience. But what I keep hearing are these containerized apps, like here's another environment, here's another environment, here's another environment. And by the way, we're Facebook, and we own all this.
AP: They're Meta, and they own all this.
LG: They're Meta and they own all this. All right, we're going to take a quick break. And when we come back, we're going to continue the conversation about the metaverse.
LG: Welcome back to this metaverse edition of Gadget Lab. What will podcasts sound like in the metaverse? That's a good question. We'll have to tackle that another time. Arielle, for people who are not super familiar with the whole idea of the metaverse, or maybe haven't used a VR headset before, or just don't know what it's like to be in this really immersive computing experience, take us through how Zuckerberg presented this idea visually, like how much of it was real and how much of it was some kind of cartoon fantasy of what the metaverse will look like?
AP: I mean, the line between those two things is so thin. Connect started with Mark Zuckerberg in real life, in a room that looked like it might be his living room, or someone's very, very nice home. One of the first things that he did was create an avatar for himself. In his case, he chose something that looked identical to him and his kind of like boring uniform. But once he created this avatar, he moved into what we're meant to understand is the metaverse. And that's basically like being in a space that looks very similar to the one he's in, in real life, except that he can interact with people who are at a great distance away and they might show up in a weird avatar costume, like Andrew Bosworth showing up like a robot. He kind of moved fluidly through spaces that were meant to be more like home spaces or were meant to replicate a virtual workplace, various video games, and sort of entertainment spaces.
It's not exactly like just being in a virtual reality world, although some of it certainly is. The concept of the metaverse is that you might be wearing a VR headset, interacting in a completely virtual space as an avatar. And then, for example, your wife might call and send you a video of your dog running around, which is actually like a thing that happened during Connect. Mark receives his call from Priscilla and watches this sort of 2D, Web 2.0 image of his dog and then kind of falls right back into his virtual world. I think the idea is that you're not just in VR or AR, in the way that you could be right now with a particular game or a particular platform. Like all of these games, platforms, spaces, and environments kind of merged together, as if you're wandering some sort of giant metaverse mansion. And every door opens up a new opportunity to be somewhere else with other people doing something totally different.
MC: About that VR headset that he was wearing: Facebook owns Oculus, which is one of the leading manufacturers of VR headsets, but it feels like there has to be a level of interoperability here for this to work. Because like, what we're talking about with the metaverse, we're talking about this layer between you and all of the computing that you do. Well, all of the computing that you do is not necessarily something that you can view through VR glasses. Like you use your phone, you interact with your voice assistant, Siri or Google assistant, or Alexa, you have televisions that are part of your computing experience. So how does all that stuff fit in? I guess the second part of this question is, does it work on any other VR headsets, or does it just work on Oculus headsets?
LG: That's a really good question. And I will say that earlier this week, prior to Facebook Connect, there was a briefing that Facebook did with a group of journalists. WIRED was a part of that. I attended the briefing, our friend, Peter Rubin attended the briefing, and we got a little bit of a high-level overview of what we might expect to come down the pipeline on Thursday. Mark Zuckerberg presented at the start of this briefing, just gave kind of like a 10-minute overview of like, here's the vision I plan to lay out. And then the rest of the briefing was pretty much run by Andrew Bosworth and a couple of other folks within the Facebook Reality Labs team. I'll be honest, Zuckerberg did not seem inclined to want to answer questions. He was just going to hop off the call, but I really, really wanted to ask him about interoperability.
I just keep thinking about it. And I said this earlier, this idea that the metaverse is going to be the successor to the mobile internet. But as we know, the mobile internet right now, depending on which operating system I suppose you're on, which is one of two, for the most part, in the world, it can be a pretty closed-off experience. People call Apple a walled garden for good reason. And even when you're sort of living in an app environment, there are some apps that you can't really like share data super easily, or take your data with you from app to app. Is the metaverse just going to be an extension of that? That was a question I had for Zuckerberg. Both he and Bosworth said they thought that interoperability was a really high priority, especially since one of the fundamental elements of the metaverse is supposed to be this idea of openness.
And then Zuckerberg said something like, because the metaverse is going to be designed around people, not apps, that's what's going to make it different, but that all sounded very loosey-goosey to me, like really nebulous, and I didn't have a clear understanding of what that meant. But then it was interesting, because later on in the briefing—I have to give credit to the Verge reporter, Adi Robertson, because she just kept asking, she kept saying, "So, am I going to be able to access Facebook Horizon, this app, on any headset other than the Oculus Quest headset?" And then Bosworth gave an answer. And then Adi said, "Yeah, but am I going to be able to access Facebook Horizon on anything other than the Oculus headset?" And then Bosworth answered again. And then she said, "But am I going to be able to use Horizon on the HTC Vive?"
And he was like, "Well, no, but like, not currently, but like we hope for that," or whatever. And so there is this presentation of this vast metaverse, it's just like a totally open landscape, and we're all just kind of roaming the internet freely and taking our digital assets with us everywhere we want to go. But right now you do have to have this thing on your face or on your head that is made by a specific company that wants to sell you, even if it's not charging you, wants to sell you on its services more than other companies services, I think.
AP: I think the interoperability piece is really interesting, because without it, this plan doesn't really work—or maybe it does work, but Facebook has to build every single piece of it, itself, and acquire every single competitor so that this universe-sized piece of computing is all owned by Meta. I guess Lauren, Mike, I'd be curious if you had thoughts on this, but do we have any sense of other companies that plan to work with Facebook? My sense right now is that they are really spinning a vision here, but without having announced any partners, or plans to partner, or plans to make this work across companies, platforms, and producers.
MC: I think a lot of the interoperability stuff is going to come from the software development side, like you'll be able to put on your VR headset and then have Slack and Zoom.
AP: That's the dream, isn't it?
MC: It's a little difficult to think about, but the types of experiences you're going to have are going to be dictated by the companies that decide they want to build for this platform. It's the same thing with every platform, like the platform succeeds or fails based on the quality and the volume of the software that's available for it. And if putting on a headset and doing a chat app is a experience, then maybe the thing that's going to drive the metaverse is going to be games or it's going to be like social hangouts or concerts or something like that. I can't imagine that watching a concert in a VR headset is better than watching it on my awesome television with an awesome soundbar in my living room, where I can get up and move around without having to pay particular attention to where I'm going.
LG: I kind of wonder how it's going to shake out. And it's hard to know, because I don't want to draw exact parallels between the metaverse and our current internet, because that would be sort of limiting in how we might want to think about the metaverse. But like, when I think about the way that entertainment apps have worked in recent years, or the way that stores run right now, they're always like these strategic partnerships that happen where a large tech company will say, "And now we're offering Roku on this TV platform." Or Microsoft might say, "And now we're working with Google Android on this mobile phone project. But we're still going to really promote Microsoft apps more than anything else." They all make these kinds of strategic partnerships—we're working with Dropbox or whatever it is.
But then, when it comes to the big platforms like Apple versus Google versus Amazon versus Microsoft, they're not super fast to support each other and run each other's apps and support each other's stores and things like that, or prioritize each other's products, which makes sense. They're all competing in some way or another. I just have a hard time envisioning it. Microsoft Mesh is probably the closest parallel to what Facebook, I would say, is building right now with Facebook Horizon. It's hard to imagine a world in which the two of them decided to become super friendly and work together, but you can see a world in which a smaller company—one of the most interesting VR companies I've written about recently is called Spatial, out of New York. They're working with Microsoft and they're working with Facebook. Like you could see a world where that happens.
Let me ask you both one more quick question before we wrap, which is, Facebook announced that some 2D apps will be available in the virtual environment. Mike, you mentioned earlier Slack, and Dropbox is another one, which I've mentioned. So I think the idea is, if you do enter Horizon Workrooms and you're working with your colleagues, but then a Slack comes through, rather than having to take the headset off to check your laptop on your desk—how old-fashioned—that you would just check your Slack within the VR headset. Does that sound more or less enticing to you?
MC: I guess it does get around that problem of what I was saying about the concert experience, like having to always take off the headset and look at something in the real world. It allows you to just have that pass-through type experience. I think that's fine. It does not sound appealing at all, because I mean, basically what we're talking about is just adding a bunch of stuff to VR, and just making a VR room that is like a simulacrum of a real room. That does not sound appealing to me just because I've been using a computer in actual space, in an actual room, for a really long time. And like, when I think about putting on a VR headset, the type of experience that I'm craving by putting on a VR headset is not the thing that they're pushing with these apps that show up on virtual screens in a virtual room.
However, if I am in a workflow where it is like I'm in VR exactly half the time and in non-VR apps the other half of the time, then it makes sense to be able to interact with those apps without having to take the headset off and put it back on continuously. I can just like put it on, and it's the same thing, it eventually becomes the same type of behavior as sitting down at my desk and turning on my monitor and just getting to work that I do now. You know what I mean? It's like, that becomes the new norm, then that's a good way to get us to that norm.
AP: I think that's a really good way of putting it, Mike. I guess that's one way to look at the metaverse, is not just as a concept that mostly lives in software, but actually like the new form factor for computing, where you're in a digital space and the tools that you want to use to interact with your computer, like a keyboard and mouse, might be replaced by what Facebook is calling sort of neural interfaces, a sort of wrist-worn device that picks up on signals from your brain and helps simulate the experience of typing, but without ever having to have a keyboard or a mouse around you, that kind of stuff is very exciting to me. I think it's cool to watch what this next phase of computing might look like. Of course, Mike, I agree with you that, as presented today, I'm not totally sure if the metaverse is a place I want to live in, especially if it ends up being the remote office, but in VR. But I think this is just the beginning, and we'll have to see where things turn out in a couple of years.
LG: I would also like to extend the invite to all of you, including Boone, our excellent producer, to come over and use the super natural fitness app sometime with the Oculus Quest too. They'll call it the sweat-a-verse. I don't know. It's a fitness app that's supposed to be fun. That's all I know. What is fun? All right. We're going to take another quick break. And when we come back, we're going to give our very real-world recommendations.
LG: Arielle, as our guest of honor, coming straight to us from the metaverse, what's your recommendation this week?
AP: I would like to recommend a film, really more of an experience. If you do not want to be in this world anymore, the film is Dune, which just came out in theaters recently. It's so good. I haven't read the book, which I know is very shameful as a WIRED writer, but having gone in totally fresh with no idea what Dune was really supposed to be about, I felt completely in love with it. It is such a magical experience. I hope I don't get canceled for saying this.
MC: I don't think you will. There's a lot of people who never read the book, or people who tried to read it and abandoned it after, I don't know, 870 pages, which is like halfway through, I think.
AP: Have you guys seen it?
AP: What'd you think?
MC: Loved it.
LG: I'm reading it right now.
MC: You're reading the book?
AP: She's reading it.
LG: I'm reading the book on the Microsoft Surface Duo 2.
LG: Which is a whole other story.
MC: Probably easier than reading it through a pair of goggles.
LG: And I would say that the Kindle app is one of the good apps on the Surface Duo 2.
LG: But full review TKTKTK.
LG: Mike, what's your recommendation this week?
MC: My recommendation is that you serve only one master, and that master is Shai Hulud. I'm just kidding. That's a Dune joke, come on. I want to recommend a podcast. It is a podcast that I've recommended on this show before, in general, it's called The War on Cars podcast, but I want to recommend a particular episode. This podcast is about transportation. It's about city design. It's about driving. It's about riding a bike. It's about pedestrians. It's about policy. So if you have any interest in these things, if you live in a city, if you ride a bike, if you drive a car, if you're in the world of Uber and Lyft and self-driving cars, it's always fascinating. They always have great guests. The guest on the most recent episode, which is episode number 71, is the food writer Alicia Kennedy, and having a food writer on a podcast about transportation and infrastructure sounds like an odd mix.
So I was intrigued. I also have always really loved Alicia Kennedy's work. She does a newsletter. She writes a lot about food for different publications. She's also a vegan and vegetarian. So, like, go team V. Anyway, they talk about the parallels between driving and eating meat. If you're a person who decides to stop driving a car and start riding a bicycle or walking everywhere because you want to save the environment, people will often consider you some sort of righteous crusader, and it's the very similar thing that happens when you stop eating meat and decide to go vegetarian or vegan and people see you as some sort of crusader. It's a really interesting conversation. It gets a lot into how we make the choices that we make about our behaviors, and how our intentions shape our behaviors, really fascinating. You should check it out, The War on Cars podcast. You should subscribe to the podcast, but also check out the new episode, episode 71, with guest Alicia Kennedy.
LG: That's a great recommendation.
AP: That sounds great.
MC: Well, thanks, Lauren. What is your recommendation?
LG: Well, some of you may be so distracted by the metaverse as put forth by the company formerly known as Facebook that you forgot about the Facebook papers, but earlier this week, Monday morning, many of us woke up to a deluge of news reports about these so-called Facebook papers. And WIRED had its own package of stories tied to the papers, that were shared by a former Facebook employee, Frances Haugen, who has now testified before Congress and has shared these sensitive documents with people, just to show how much Facebook has been aware of the social harms that it has been doing to society, and it has just sort of proceeded in the direction of relentless growth at all costs. Our WIRED colleagues Stephen Levy, Gilad Edelman, and Tom Simonite have all been poring over the documents and they wrote a series of stories. One is about the ways in which Facebook employees have been trying to lobby for change in recent years and how the executive leadership team has in some cases, ignored those pleas. Steven Levy wrote about how Facebook badge posts, which are exit posts from people who are leaving the company with those site.
MC: They take a picture of their security badge?
LG: And then like post to the internal, I think they call it Facebook workplace. Steven Levy wrote about that and what that reveals about the sort of temperature within the company right now. And then Tom Simonite wrote about Facebook's problems with content moderation in regions outside of the US, or how it turns out the company dedicates most of its resources where it tends to have the biggest public relations problems or face the threat of regulation. But obviously Facebook is a global company. It's very popular in different parts of the world as well. And they are not dedicating as many resources to content moderation outside of the US, so I highly recommend checking out this small package we've put together. It's just a few stories, but you can learn a lot about what's going on inside of Facebook from reading them. There'll probably be more stories as we see more of the documents that are part of the Facebook papers. So it's a very Facebook-heavy show, and that is my recommendation this week.
MC: Nice. Yep. Highly recommended to read all three of those, plus the intro written by Brian Barrett.
LG: Plus the intro written by our own Brian Barrett. All right. That's our show. Arielle, thanks so much for joining us this week.
AP: Thank you so much for having me.
LG: And thanks to all of you for listening. If you have feedback, you can find all of us on Twitter, just check the show notes. The show is produced by the excellent Boone Ashworth. Goodbye for now. We'll be back next week, hopefully talking about something other than Facebook.
MC: Yeah, that's not the metaverse.
[Gadget Lab outro theme music plays.]
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