Facebook’s change hasn’t been for the meta

The owner of the social graph wants to be bigger than that but few will play ball.


I once knew a student who asked to be called by the name of Beats. It turned out that his real name was Kevin and I never heard anybody call Kevin, a shy boy with a carapace of arrogance and ferociously protected cool, by his desired assumed name. That’s the thing about names: they stick and are hard to shift and shed unless you inhabit the celebrity jungle where the whole world and its rules and codes pretty much turn upside down.

As a journalist, I find names to be revealing: they highlight often unacknowledged truths and changing the name of a person or company often points to some sort of failure, trauma or attempt to pivot away from a path that led to undesirable locations. Forgive the public musings but, to get to the point, I’ve been dwelling on the Facebook name change for a few weeks now. Acceptance so far: at best partial and with some mickey-taking. It’s my conviction that the odds of it being widely adopted are longer than even money.

In part, that is because at least some of the reason for the name change was surely trauma and the toxicity that the brand has been subject to via the periodic revelations that swirl around the company. In part this is, ironically, because of the very success of (what I continue to prefer to call) Facebook, the world’s fifth most valuable brand, according to Forbes’ annual list of such things in 2020. Forbes ascribes to Facebook a brand value of over $70bn, ahead of even Coca-Cola, Disney and McDonald’s, and behind only other tech behemoths and bellwethers.

In making the change, Facebook will doubtless have hired naming and branding specialists but I doubt the value of their counsel or at least whether good counsel was followed. Many household names from Nestlé to Barclays have survived worse allegations (if you’re under 50, you may not know of them) and emerged with their monikers intact.

Closer to home, Microsoft survived an epic regulatory probe and the enmity of legions of geeks to become once again the most valuable company in the world. IBM also endured a long regulatory inspection of its behaviour (as well as suffering through association with Nazi Germany) and hardly anybody recalls those travails. Brands, even damaged brands, have innate value and time softens everything it touches.

Besides, Facebook’s contention that it wants to be associated with a wider range of products than its social networks and messaging apps, the broad “metaverse” (THUD!), won’t really wash. It continues to be known for giving us the questionable gift of the social graph, while its ventures from collaborative productivity clouds to smart eyewear relatively speaking don’t register a blip. Here, it might have looked to Google for precedent, which still wants to be known as Alphabet but few use it, except in financial reports, because we know the company as a portal with good search capabilities. Google even gained the ultimate brand accolade in that it became a verb for an activity in much the same way Hoover once did. There’s no shame in that at all.

And finally, Meta is a lousy name, a prefix used by the pretentious to show off their vocabularies and often incorrectly at that. There already appears to be a demonstrable reaction against it with the Facebook name still prominent across the media. At best, it receives the pat-on-the-head equivalent of Prince, who wanted to change his name to a symbol but had to settle for the clunky Artist Formerly Known As Prince. 

Another American icon, Bob Dylan, but once Robert Zimmerman, once advised, “Act the way you’d like to be and soon you’ll be the way you’d like to act.” Facebook should stay proudly Facebook and rejoice in being a great American success while chipping away at its many rough edges, which all companies possess. Ultimately, its brand will ebb and flow based on that ultimate test.

How many of us are prepared to enter the metaverse or bother to namecheck Meta? Not many, I’ll wager, and if Facebook continues to waste time on such ephemera as name changes, its fortunes may get verse before they get meta. (Sorry, couldn’t resist…)