When Facebook bought Oculus and its much-hyped Rift headset for $2 billion way back in 2014, it wasn’t clear exactly what the social media company had in mind for the resurgent frontier of virtual reality. But to anyone familiar with the company’s countless scandals and insatiable appetite for personal data, it wasn’t hard to guess.
The announcement of Meta, the company’s VR and AR-forward rebrand, is the culmination of a vision that should have been obvious from the start. In 2021, Facebook’s colonization of social data has eclipsed the internet as we know it, and its ambitions now demand the creation of a new reality where intimate data about our social and physical behaviors can be captured and exploited for profit.
During a tech demo in 2016, CEO Mark Zuckerberg described VR as “the next major computing platform”—a space where all our social interactions will play out with new levels of physical presence thanks to headsets and motion-controllers. As I wrote at the time, this could only mean one thing: Zuckerberg wants to build virtual environments where all human behavior can be recorded, predicted, and monetized.
At the time, the company told me it had “no current plans” to use physical motion data like head and eye movements as a means of predicting behavior and serving ads. Since then, it has made logging into Facebook a mandatory requirement for users of its Oculus headset—a requirement it was recently pressured to remove. And earlier this year, the company announced its inevitable entry into VR-based advertising, inspiring enough backlash to cause one Oculus developer to abandon its plans for VR ads altogether.
While the bait-and-switch is a familiar and unsurprising move for The Company Formerly Known As Facebook, the announcement of Meta proves that there is no stopping Zuckerberg’s plans to mine every human interaction in the world for data that can then be monetized. The brand shift notably comes at a time when the company is under intense scrutiny for its role in spreading disinformation and violence around the world, reinvigorated by revelations from whistleblower Frances Haugin.
With Meta, it’s safe to assume the predictive algorithms at work will be functionally the same as its predecessor. Data is collected about human behavior, which is then used to build profiles on users and automatically prioritize content they are more likely to interact with. Facebook itself proved the effectiveness of this manipulation with an “emotional contagion” experiment it secretly conducted on users in 2012, which showed that changing a user’s feed to show positive or negative content altered the types of content they were likely to post.
This type of algorithmic manipulation forms the core business model of Facebook and countless other apps and social platforms. As one anonymous Silicon Valley data scientist put it in a 2015 paper by Harvard emeritus Shoshanna Zuboff, the goal of algorithmic social platforms like Facebook is “to change people’s actual behavior at scale [...] identify good and bad behaviors, and develop ways to reward the good and punish the bad.”
Researchers have found that this algorithmic “nudging” is possible in embodied virtual spaces too, where the collection of intimate data about physical body movements provides new ways to influence human behavior on a large scale. Companies like RealEyes and Affectiva have marketed AI that they say can predict human emotions by analyzing body language and facial expressions—a claim that is fiercely contested by AI experts but being widely deployed anyway. In one notable study, researchers determined that AI-controlled digital avatars can be used in virtual spaces to push people into accepting certain political views.
In other words, Meta represents a massive investment into the very kind of algorithmic manipulation for which Facebook has been repeatedly maligned.
Meanwhile, the company has been on a charm offensive to sell its new vision. Zuckerberg spent the bulk of his presentation of Meta showing off a VR-centered social platform where our avatars live a utopian, Sims-like existence filling their virtual houses with digital items purchased from an online marketplace. In the grand tradition of Zuckerbergian cringe, the newly rebranded company spent the rest of the day sending thirsty replies to popular brands on Twitter.
But despite the changed name, Meta remains as Facebook-y as ever. Zuckerberg’s company pioneered the art of collecting data and using it to algorithmically capture our attention for profit regardless of the social cost. If the metaverse really is a thing and not just another bizarre Silicon Valley pipe dream, Meta seems intent on making this new reality just as shitty as the old one.