But the most interesting question, to my mind, is: Why is Mr. Zuckerberg doing this? After all, it’s not a prelude to a huge corporate reorganization or a sign of a chief executive who wants to give himself an easier job, as was the case when Google renamed itself Alphabet in 2015 and Larry Page handed over day-to-day control of Google to Sundar Pichai. And even though some have speculated that the Meta rebranding is meant to distract from Facebook’s most recent round of scandals, it’s bizarre to think that announcing a radical plan to reinvent the digital world would make critics less skeptical of the company’s motives.
To understand why Mr. Zuckerberg is going all in, it helps to understand that a successful metaverse pivot could help solve at least four big, thorny problems Facebook faces here in the terrestrial world.
The first is one I’ve written about before, which is that Facebook’s core social media business is aging, and younger users are abandoning its apps in favor of TikTok, Snapchat and other, cooler apps. Facebook’s youth problem hasn’t hurt it financially yet, but ad revenue is a lagging indicator, and there is plenty of evidence that even Instagram — the supposedly healthy app in Facebook’s portfolio — is rapidly losing the attention of teenagers and twentysomethings.
The bleakest version of what Facebook might become in the next few years, if current trends hold — a Boomer-dominated sludge pit filled with cute animal videos and hyperpartisan garbage — is clearly not the kind of thing the company wants as its flagship product. (Mr. Zuckerberg explicitly endorsed a youth-focused strategy this week, saying that the company’s new focus was attracting and retaining young users.)
The metaverse could help with the company’s demographic crisis, if it encourages young people to strap on their Oculus headsets and hang out in Horizon — Facebook’s social V.R. app — instead of watching TikTok videos on their phones.
Another problem Facebook’s metaverse strategy could address, if it works, is platform risk. For years, Mr. Zuckerberg has been irked that because Facebook’s mobile apps run on iOS and Android, its success is highly dependent on Apple and Google, two companies whose priorities are often diametrically opposed to its own. This year’s “app tracking transparency” changes by Apple, for example, dealt a blow to Facebook’s advertising business by making it harder for the company to collect data about users’ mobile activity. And if smartphones remain the dominant way that people interact online, Facebook will never truly control its own destiny.
Understand the Facebook Papers
A tech giant in trouble. The leak of internal documents by a former Facebook employee has provided an intimate look at the operations of the secretive social media company and renewed calls for better regulations of the company’s wide reach into the lives of its users.
Mr. Zuckerberg has been talking about the strategic benefits of the metaverse since at least 2015, when he wrote to his lieutenants that “we need to succeed in building both a major platform and key apps to improve our strategic position on the next platform.”