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What’s in a name? For Facebook, almost two decades of an eponymous social media network that has defined its entire identity, growing into a household name that dominated Big Tech.
It dates back to Mark Zuckerberg’s Harvard dorm room, where the teenager bashed out code for a “hot or not” website for fellow students, called FaceMash. At the time, a “facebook” was a paper directory of Harvard students based on their houses. Zuckerberg decided the college needed a “universal” directory: “thefacebook.com” was born.
Seventeen years later, the tech billionaire might be finally about to ditch a name that has, in turn, become toxic among politicians and distrusted by many younger internet users.
An inability to keep up with the times and attract the youth, combined with accusations of giving a platform to conspiracy theorists and claims its algorithms are glorifying eating disorders and promoting sexist job advertisements has meant Facebook’s eponymous social network has started to taint its parent company.
A future focus on its other subsidiaries including WhatsApp, Instagram and Giphy, far more popular with a younger audience, would be understandable.
With concerns over how to salvage Facebook likely weighing on his mind, Zuckerberg is planning an overhaul that would rebrand his $950bn company, according to tech website The Verge. The parent organisation would take on a new name with Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp remaining as separate websites.
Two contenders – Horizon and Meta – appear to be frontrunners.
The move would mark a big shift in Zuckerberg’s future vision for the company and an attempt to play down a site increasingly blamed for division, rather than its stated goal of connecting people. Recent whistleblower leaks have exposed internal research revealing the impact of Facebook and Instagram on children’s mental health.
But there is plenty of scepticism over whether the latest effort to reform its battered public image, led in no small part by hiring former Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg in 2018, will work. In the latest hit, Facebook on Wednesday was fined £50m by the UK’s competition watchdog for deliberately refusing to comply with an investigation into its buyout of Giphy last April.
For Facebook’s critics, a fresh name is just the latest attempt to distract from its seemingly growing list of problems.
Damian Collins, the Conservative MP and chair of the committee reviewing the UK’s flagship online safety laws, says: “Unless the name change is accompanied with a drastic change in their leadership structure, moving towards one that actually listens to safety and integrity employees, respects privacy rights, and doesn’t unfairly prey on market competitors, Facebook’s facelift will be little more than another poorly timed PR stunt.”
The new look is expected to be announced as soon as next week, possibly on October 28, and will reflect Zuckerberg’s efforts to position Facebook as a so-called “metaverse” company. In July, he told investors: “I expect people will transition from seeing us primarily as a social media company to seeing us as a metaverse company.”
This, described by Zuckerberg, is “a virtual environment where you can be present with people in digital spaces” and “an embodied internet that you’re inside of rather than just looking at”.
Broadly, Facebook thinks of the metaverse as a growing collection of virtual reality and augmented reality experiences, along with gaming, online retail and digital workplaces. Over time, these experiences become more immersive and equivalent to the real world, similar to Steven Spielberg’s science fiction film Ready Player One.
Zuckerberg’s rebrand could land the company with one of two names. According to The Verge, Horizon is one possibility. Over the summer Facebook launched a virtual reality app called Horizon Workrooms which combines features of video calling with VR avatars. “We think it’s one of the best ways to work if you can’t be physically together,” it said.
Another name has been posited by former Facebook executives. Samidh Chakrabarti, its former head of civic integrity, said:
My best guess for the new name: "Meta"
But I'd prefer something more classic like simply "A Mark Zuckerberg Production"
— Samidh (@samidh) October 20, 2021
The website meta.com currently takes you to the non-profit foundation co-founded by Zuckerberg.
Facebook said it did not comment on rumours or speculation.
Limiting 'collateral damage'
Of course, rebrands are notoriously tricky to get right. In April investment company Aberdeen rebranded as abrdn and its shares have yet to take off. In 2016 media company Tribune changed its name to Tronc, and then back again, after derision.
Google is the closest parallel to Facebook, having split itself into a new holding company, Alphabet, in 2015 to make the search engine one of its subsidiaries. The original, however, has stuck as its household name.
Martin Garner, a technology analyst at CCS Insight, says a rebrand would be a “natural progression … likely driven by a wish to be a more diversified business”.
But, he adds, getting people to accept a name change can prove challenging: “As Alphabet is finding with most people still calling it Google, it takes years to get the new name into people’s consciousness.”
“This may be a problem if Facebook is thinking of a new name as a way of protecting its new ventures in case any of its main brands fall from favour.”
Nu Wexler, former Facebook and Google public relations officer, now a partner at communications firm Seven Letter, said, however, that the name change could benefit Facebook by helping to shield its metaverse and other efforts from association with the social network.
“A name change won’t silence the loudest Facebook critics, but it could protect other family of apps members from collateral PR damage. For all the media coverage they get, most people still don’t know that Facebook owns Instagram, Google owns YouTube, and Amazon owns Ring,” he said.
“Independent brands let them build their own identities and help with consumers who are reluctant to share their personal data with larger companies.”