Even for Facebook, sorry Meta, these are mad, out-there times. Not only is its algorithmic amplification of "angry" content and capacity to worsen societal ills under belated public and regulatory scrutiny after some comprehensive whistleblowing, it stands accused of inflicting the world's deadliest collective cringe.
Yes, the medium of corporate video has struck again. Every second of Meta chief executive Mark Zuckerberg explaining why he has been programmed to build the "metaverse", whether we like it or not, is capable of triggering full-body shudders on an unprecedented scale. You have to hand it to the company formerly known as Facebook: it's got reach.
These interactions between Zuckerberg, his human avatar Nick Clegg and super-enthusiastic "Deb from our studios team" – clips from the Facebook founder's presentation at its Connect conference last Thursday – are savagely mesmerising. I recommend a watch just so we all understand what we're dealing with.
For post-Halloween squirms, however, I keep returning to another baffling plank in Facebook’s big rebranding: its new logo. Well, it’s a bit droopy, isn’t it?
Indeed, it’s actively drooping. Like Airbnb’s “Bélo”, unveiled to choking laughter in 2014, Meta’s logo is a Rorschach test that makes certain anatomical interpretations far too easy. But just as it is possible to see something other than sexual organs in Airbnb’s logo (a person with arms aloft, the letter A, an inverted heart), Meta’s effort throws up all manner of alternative associations: a Pringle, a sanitary pad, the letter M. Only one of these is Meta’s suggestion.
The “Meta symbol”, which we are told was conceived by brand and product teams from across the company, is designed to “live in motion and 3D”, with a single line forming “a continuous loop that works seamlessly between 2D and 3D contexts”.
In motion, it is admittedly less crap than it is in static 2D, but given we don’t yet live or even holiday in Zuckerberg’s metaverse, the static 2D image is how many of us will be confronted with the logo. And what says “cool new tech” better than the sad blue outline of a thyroid?
To be fair, what Meta intends the logo to invoke (other than “M” for Meta) is also right there: a toppled-over figure-of-eight is the mathematical symbol for infinity.
This is daringly unoriginal. Web conferencing platform Webex by Cisco and Microsoft's app development product Visual Studio both use an infinity symbol, as does Virgin Media, which blows up the first of the loops. More tenuous comparisons have also been made to the logos for Disney's cloud service Movies Anywhere and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, which have an extra twist.
So why do so many technology and media companies love a good squiggle? Branding experts with various degrees of credibility talk about curved lines conveying the idea of soft, cuddly values – “feminine” ones, no less – which you can see might come in handy for a company operating a platform too infinite to properly moderate and too profitable, in some instances, to seriously try.
When numerous studies point to social media being especially bad for the mental health of young girls, it’s useful to give the impression of being comforting and kind. But the power of a few rounded edges to distract anybody from a dubious track record in the facilitation of hate speech, human trafficking and genocide seems doubtful.
For sure, the Noughties-era Like button logo Facebook/Meta has just removed from outside its Menlo Park headquarters in California didn't ultimately do much to sway people into believing the senior echelons of Facebook were merely a "thumbs-up" bunch of people just here to help us all make friends.
Meta’s infinity symbol is a reminder, most of all, of Zuckerberg’s infinite ambition. He’s here to declare his candidacy for supreme landlord of the metaverse. The company describes this as the “next evolution of social technology” in which we can “share immersive experiences with people even when you can’t be together in person, and do things together you couldn’t in the physical world”. Like the Holodeck in Star Trek: The Next Generation, only not as good.
"Metaverse" was coined by writer Neal Stephenson in his 1992 science fiction novel Snow Crash (which also popularised the term "avatar"). Zuckerberg's goggles-assisted version will allow and encourage us, and everybody around us, to be both present and not-present.
It’s an all-encompassing vision of the future that sounds like a cross between our smartphone-addicted present, a hallucinatory drug fantasy and any number of failed virtual reality experiments. We’ll all be in a Clegg-esque trance if it comes off. If it does, Meta will be watching: some logo-mockers have drawn pupils inside the loops, generating a pair of cartoon eyes in tribute to Facebook’s leading role in surveillance capitalism.
Hostage to fortune
In a blog post, Meta said it chose its name because it can mean “beyond” – a word that has a joyful link to the concept of infinity thanks to would-be space ranger Buzz Lightyear. Alas, Meta can also mean “dead” in Hebrew, prompting the spread of the hashtag #FacebookDead. It’s also a cultural label signifying something that is self-referential, clever and cool, which doesn’t quite tally with Facebook’s naff metamorphosis.
Of course, not even perfect, brilliant branding could fully compensate for Facebook/Meta’s unwise insistence on putting Zuckerberg front and centre of its communications, nor would it alleviate the risk of making its company name synonymous with something it hasn’t actually done yet. As hostages to fortune go, Meta has created an almighty one.
No matter how grand the claim he lays to it, this isn’t Mark’s metaverse and there is little to imply we should trust him with it, not for one virtual second. Governments and regulators know this. The rest of us must wait to see if their strategic gormlessness exceeds Meta’s.