SAN FRANCISCO — Facebook rose to prominence over the past two decades with some of the world’s most recognizable branding: A big blue letter F.
No longer. On Thursday, the social networking giant took an unmistakable step toward an overhaul, de-emphasizing Facebook’s name and rebranding itself as Meta. The change comes with a new logo designed like an infinity-shaped symbol, slightly askew, almost like a pretzel. Facebook, Instagram and other apps will remain, but under the Meta umbrella.
The move punctuates how Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive, plans to refocus his Silicon Valley company on what he sees as the next digital frontier, which is the unification of disparate digital worlds into something called the metaverse. At the same time, renaming Facebook may help distance the company from the many social networking controversies it is facing, including how it spreads hate speech and misinformation.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about our identity” with this new chapter, Mr. Zuckerberg said, speaking at a virtual event to showcase Facebook’s technological bets of the future. “Over time, I hope we’re seen as a metaverse company.”
Mr. Zuckerberg has been committed to building the metaverse, a composite universe melding online, virtual and augmented worlds that people can seamlessly traverse. He has said the metaverse can be the next major social platform and that several tech companies will build it over the next 10-plus years. On Monday, Facebook telegraphed its intent to be a big player when it separated its virtual reality and augmented reality business into a division known as Facebook Reality Labs.
But the timing of the shift has a double advantage. Facebook has grappled with some of the most intense scrutiny in its 17-year history in recent weeks. Lawmakers and the public have criticized its Instagram photo-sharing app for hurting some teenagers’ self-esteem and the company has faced questions for its role in amplifying misinformation and stirring unrest with inflammatory content.
The outcry reached a fever pitch after Frances Haugen, a former Facebook employee, leaked internal documents that showed how much the company knew about the effects it was causing. Findings from Ms. Haugen’s documents were first published by The Wall Street Journal and then other media organizations, including The New York Times.
The revelations have led to a slew of congressional hearings, as well as legal and regulatory scrutiny. On Monday, Ms. Haugen spoke to British lawmakers in Parliament and urged them to regulate Facebook. On Tuesday, Facebook told its employees to “preserve internal documents and communications since 2016” that pertain to its businesses because governments and legislative bodies had started inquiries into its operations.
Corporate rebrands are rare but have precedent. They have generally been used to signal a company’s structural reorganization or to distance a company from a toxic reputation.
In 2015, Google restructured itself under a new parent company, Alphabet, dividing itself into separate smaller companies to better differentiate its internet search business from the moonshot bets it was making in other areas. In 2011, Netflix announced plans to cleave its video business into two parts, briefly renaming the streaming arm of the company as Qwikster.
After The Verge reported last week that Facebook might change its name, social media also erupted with less desirable comparisons. Some recalled how Philip Morris, the tobacco giant, rebranded itself to Altria Group in 2001 after years of reputational damage over the health costs and effects of cigarettes on the American public.
Nicholas Clegg, Facebook’s vice president of global policy and communications, has rejected the comparisons, calling them “extremely misleading.”
The metaverse today is largely illusory, which Mr. Zuckerberg acknowledged on Thursday by nodding to how it sounded like “science fiction.”
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Even so, he talked up the idea as “the successor to the mobile internet” and said mobile devices would no longer be the focal points. The building blocks for the metaverse were also already available, Mr. Zuckerberg said. In a demonstration, he showed a digital avatar of himself that transported to different digital worlds while talking to friends and family, no matter where they were on the planet.
“You’re really going to feel like you’re there with other people,” he said. “You’re not going to be locked into one world or platform.”
Mr. Zuckerberg said creating the metaverse would take a lot of work across different technology companies, new forms of governance and other elements that would not come in the short term. But he laid out several areas where the metaverse would be applicable, citing video gaming, fitness and work.
Mr. Zuckerberg showed Horizon Workrooms, a virtual conference room product, where colleagues could work together remotely on different projects that they might have once done at the office. He talked up several immersive video games. And he demonstrated Horizon Worlds, a virtual reality-based social network, where friends and family could come together and interact.
Success will depend partly on attracting others to create new apps and programs that work in the metaverse. As with the mobile app economy, users are more likely to join new computing ecosystems if there are programs and software for them to use.
As a result, Mr. Zuckerberg said he would continue offering low-cost or free services to developers and invest in attracting more developers through creator funds and other capital injections. Among other things, Facebook has earmarked $150 million for developers who create new kinds of immersive learning apps and programs.
“We are fully committed to this,” he said. “It is the next chapter of our work.”
This is a developing story. Check back for updates.