Thursday marked a new chapter in Facebook’s ongoing attempt to deal with the fallout from recent revelations about its inadequate content moderation role in sparking a mental health crises, decisions to prioritize engagement over safety, facilitation of genocide, and more: it changed its name to Meta Platforms, Inc—”Meta” for short.
The name change comes after a horde of internal Facebook documents leaked by former product manager Frances Haugen spawned waves of negative coverage and a Congressional hearing. During the presentation where CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced the name change, he referenced the controversy surrounding Haugen’s whistleblowing several times.
As it turns out, changing Facebook’s brand to Meta required sunsetting an identically-named academic software company that was acquired by the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative, the philanthropic organization that Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan founded in 2015.
Meta is a Canadian scientific literature analysis company that was founded in 2009, bought by the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) in 2017, and on the day of Facebook’s rebrand the Initiative announced it will shut down by 2022. Meta was the first acquisition of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and controls the URL meta.org. Notably, Facebook—er, Meta—owns meta.com.
Jeff MacGregor, CZI’s vice president of communications for science, told CNet that the organization’s assets were being transferred to Facebook but didn’t offer any specifics about the deal.
In a statement explaining why its reasoning for shutting Meta, CZI alluded to “focusing” the energies of its staff, bringing “immediate value” and “greater opportunity for outsized impact” to the table.
“We believe that our CZI Science Technology team is best positioned to meet the needs of the research community while we focus our work across more specifically defined domains, including infectious disease, imaging, and single-cell biology,” said CZI in a blog post announcing the closure. “By focusing our team in these domain areas, we will bring more immediate value to the field and have greater opportunity for outsized impact, ultimately bringing us closer to our shared mission to support the science and technology that will make it possible to cure, prevent, or manage all disease by the end of the century.”
CZI, like every other billionaire-founded philanthropic organization, insists that it is a separate entity from its founder’s other businesses, in this case Facebook. However, that supposed firewall has come under scrutiny in the past.
Last year, Recode talked to a dozen current and former CZI employees who painted a picture of an organization limited in its operations and partnerships by Zuckerberg’s leadership role. A voter data project was scrapped “over concerns that it would attract scrutiny for Zuckerberg,” Recode reported, while other groups rejected CZI funding and products because of concerns about “tainted” money or “Facebook’s security’s lapses.”
“The word they use between the two companies is that there’s a firewall—so they’re all very distinct and separate—which, in practice, doesn’t hold up,” one CZI employee told Recode. “They can say whatever they want, but there’s a huge area of overlap there. I think if they were just more honest about it, it would be good for everyone.”
The fact that Meta, a company owned by CZI, shuttered the same day Facebook revealed it was changing its name to Meta and transferred its branding assets to the firm is unlikely to quell concerns about overlap between CZI and Facebook.
Meta, Meta, and CZI did not immediately respond to Motherboard’s request for comment.
Facebook’s brand pivot away from its flagship (and widely hated) social media platform and towards a fantastical and unlikely future world brings to mind other infamous rebrands like oil company British Petroleum rebranding to BP or “Beyond Petroleum” even as its fossil fuel revenues grew and its oil spills continued, or Google becoming a parent holding company called Alphabet that just so happens to own multiple products that could be individually misunderstood as monopolistic, such as Google.
Facebook’s rebrand has elements of both, but doesn’t fit squarely into either category. It changed its company name, but has kept the names of its various products under antitrust review intact. It is announcing a new set of fantastical products to come in the years ahead but hasn’t changed the company’s structure, spun off any new lines of business, or really altered its core business model.
On top of this, it’s simply hard to imagine that anything in Zuckerberg’s presentation video will ever be created and that all of this will amount to anything more than yet another failed rebrand by a company running from its self-created troubles. What is much more realistic than a “metaverse” even remotely resembling Facebook’s vision is that we will continue to see more scandals, more abuses, and more power grabs.