Meta, the company formerly known as Facebook, has staked its claim in a future “metaverse” — a three-dimensional virtual reality world.
The reactions to Meta’s rebranding have been mixed at best. The New York Times published Meta’s obituary. Others laugh off this rebranding as a cartoonish fantasy of a company with the reputational baggage approaching that of tobacco companies.
But not so fast. Tobacco companies are still here – decades after they fell out of favor in the United States – and are very profitable as smoking remains commonplace in many areas around the world. Meta will likely remain popular too, and with a much larger and lasting scope than tobacco ever dreamed of and a vision to further fuel itself.
Meta indeed has a reputation as the “bad boy” among technology titans because of its scandalous history of spectacularly large data breaches, foreign influence campaigns, marketing to children in spite of the potential psychological damage the platform may cause and allegedly making its products as addictive as possible. The list goes on.
What makes Meta so “sticky”?
Yes, it can be an engaging product flush with photos and videos. It contains some compelling content, Facebook Marketplace, Messenger and other practical uses. It even reminds friends to wish each other happy birthday. But content exists elsewhere, too. Such usages are the spokes of Facebook’s wheel of success, not its hub.
Meta is so sticky because in addition to being a means to connect, it has conditioned us to believe that connecting on its platform is a mark or symbol of true friendship.
It’s like the “friendship ring” in elementary school. If you take the friendship ring off, the friend will wonder what happened and may take it as a sign you are no longer friends.
With Meta, though, the friendship ring does not go away as you grow up. Practically speaking, you cannot escape it. If you are not on Facebook, you will hear about it. If you are, you may loathe it, but you are likely to stay on.
If you do delete your Facebook profile, your friends will wonder what has happened and may leap to the conclusion that you no longer like them enough to stay connected. Imagine trying to explain to hundreds of people why you no longer want to be called their “friend.”
The worst would be if you do it selectively. Then the person from whom you disconnect on Facebook will wonder why you are no longer their “friend” but still a “friend” to others.
To be sure, some digital nomads exist who leave Meta and perhaps other social media altogether. They can send a blanket notice to everyone, stating why they are leaving the platform, as some have done. In so doing, some of their “friends” still might take it as a slight if Meta is the only remaining means through which they had long remained connected.
Yet many of these nomads return as Meta reminds them by email that if they do not, they may lose all their data and connections. The remaining holdouts risk missing out on major life announcements such as births, marriages, deaths and other information, at least closer to real time.
What a coup — Meta has woven use of its products in with the very definition of friendship. No wonder there are 2.85 billion active users.
Why do Meta and other social media platforms constantly “suggest” friends for us? Is it because they are trying to be helpful?
Of course not. They want you to stay engaged and to know more about whom you associate with so they can sell advertisements that market to specific users.
We want to be where our family and friends are. It is as simple as that. And we do not want to leave or abandon them.
So riddling is this conundrum that there is even a step-by-step guide on how to quit Facebook while keeping your friends.
The many who remain often end up with more “friends” than they bargained for, even though “there are limits to the number of people we can cultivate meaningful relationships with, online or otherwise. The magic number, according to British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, is about 150. His theory says that we can realistically maintain approximately 150 connections at once.
Even though the human attention span is only so long, people stay loyal to Meta’s “friendship” model and are “friended” by more and more people.
It is true that some younger people do not believe Meta is cool because their parents use it. Yes, it is becoming “old school.” But those same youth still maintain at least a shell of an account, while regularly using other applications owned by Meta, including Instagram, Messenger and WhatsApp.
No wonder Facebook had the audacity to rebrand itself Meta. It already has a “patent” on friendship, and people go where their friends are. Meta has co-opted the word “friend” and the concept of friendship. That’s an incredible feat.
If the metaverse takes off as technology evangelists predict, people will want first and foremost to connect with their friendship circles woven over the years via Meta. In the meantime, over the next five, 10 or 15 years, Meta will continue to compile hoards of cash with its existing platforms, which Meta can in turn use to fuel its vision to dominate the metaverse.
Do not expect Congress to stand in Meta’s way. A number of lawmakers own sizable stock positions in Meta. Meta also spends tens of millions of dollars in lobbying per quarter, more than any other technology company. Lawmakers may wag their fingers and feign outrage at the latest scandal, but they do little to nothing to impede Meta’s path.
Provided Meta can keep on par technologically with the competition with its sizable research and development budget, it has a running start with the sticky web of “friends” it has already woven with billions of people over more than a decade.
Meta is here to stay. Bet on it.
Chad Bayse is an attorney and Navy judge advocate. He was a counselor to Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsPress: For Trump endorsement: The more sordid, the better Those predicting Facebook's demise are blowing smoke If bitcoin is 'digital gold,' it should be taxed like gold MORE and attorney-advisor at the National Security Agency. The views expressed in this article are his own and not those of the Department of the Defense or the Navy.