Of Meta and Monsters, Inc. [12/22 UPDATED]

More than a year since changing its name, the beleaguered social media giant hopes people look “Beyond” its dehumanizing AI profit engine and peer into the fully immersive commodification of the Metaverse.

More than a year since changing its name, the beleaguered social media giant hopes people look “Beyond” its dehumanizing AI profit engine and peer into the fully immersive commodification of the Metaverse.

Meta’s mission statement is odd. While corporate mission statements can be lofty and aspirational fluff, most companies are comfortable with being clear about the vital elements at the heart of their endeavors: Their products and customers. McDonald’s talks about their food, their restaurants, and their customers. Amazon talks about online retail and its vast selection of goods for its customers. 

Meta is having none of that:

“To give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.”

Facebook/Meta Mission Statement

Meta doesn’t want people to think about products, clients, or its obscene profitability. Instead, it would rather talk more obliquely about “people” in terms of empowerment, community, and unity. In light of the “Facebook Papers”1 showing the company as the antithesis of its stated mission, one must wonder if the lofty words are more about managing cognitive dissonance.

Brand Metamorphosis

The Facebook-to-Meta corporate rebranding late last year was the latest example of the company doubling down on wishful thinking amid a long-standing identity crisis, perpetually uncomfortable with who it is and how it makes so much money. Rebranding was simply an exercise in reputation management, turning attention to VR to keep advertising clients delighted and Facebook and Instagram users engaged long term.

In 2022, the inflation-roiled economy and a significant drop-off in new and active users have caused Meta’s market cap to shrink from a stratospheric $1 trillion to half that at $562 billion reported in November 2022. Large scale layoffs were announced after election day—shedding more than 10 percent of Meta’s workforce. In the year since the name change and the release of the Facebook Papers1, as more people are finding out that Meta’s monetization process is far less benign than they would have people believe, shareholders are feeling the pain 

In a recently published academic article, I looked back on Facebook’s initial foray into the commercial monetization of its platform2. A fundamental conflict arose between founders Mark Zuckerberg and Eduardo Saverin. Growing the commercial revenue of Facebook to recoup his startup investment was a massive driver for Saverin. An early copy of a Facebook sales deck he used in 2004 shows that he was keenly aware of the magnitude of Facebook’s marketing revenue potential, especially its ability to target desirable market segments. Zuckerberg kept putting him off in favor of rapid user growth unencumbered by the online advertising methods of the time. He felt that adding advertising too soon would destroy Facebook’s cachet.

Zuckerberg’s reticence turned out to be a wise business strategy. Social media was an entirely new medium, and social media advertising must be a new and evolving endeavor. Once Facebook achieved a certain user scale, attention turned to how best to monetize this unique resource beyond the interruption-based models borrowed from mass media.

Mass media and social media business models essentially share the same product. From the New York Timesto NBC to Tik Tok, all media companies assemble and sell commercial access to audiences. For television, programming popularity is quantified by viewer ratings, and advertising revenue is set accordingly. High ratings for popular programs equate to more sales. The product is the quantifiable audience, made so by measurements such as A.C. Neilson.

The social media business model operates on the same premise but cultivates a more efficient data-rich environment of user-generated content and individual online profiles. TV networks and programs have been replaced by a networked software platform and “content” generated by all manner of socially networked and interested parties, including users (the audience), news organizations, and marketers of all stripes. Database quantification adds consumer marketing logic to the process, and intelligent algorithms shape the flow of all the available content at the individual level to drive higher engagement—another way to describe increasing user data generation. The process leads to wildly more effective marketing tactics for Meta’s paying customers (comprising consumer product companies, political entities, nations, and more nefarious interests). As with traditional media, the audience is the product, and profits are made from those willing to pay to access “users.”

The critical difference between the political economies of mass media and social media is the popularity required for successful mass media programs and how social media content drives engagement. Clearly, television programs trade-off entertainment for audience access. This has led to increased quality of television programming in all genres, with the exception of news. Whether the cause is human nature or symbiosis with social media content, television news has found that polarization and negative animus are more effective in driving ratings.

Meta’s intelligent Algorithms have learned that the concept of popularity is not equivalent to engagement where a social media newsfeed is concerned. The primal emotions of fear and anger—the ones that short-circuit critical thinking and empathy—are far more effective motivators. This dynamic creates the paradox of increasing profitability in the face of decreasing user happiness. Users are the product, not the clients. Steadily increasing revenue is evidence of high client satisfaction with the product Meta produces. Yet, the externalities of their business model—the side effects revealed by previously quelled research—manifest in a highly divisive, disgruntled, depressed, and deceived society: the antithesis of the mission statement. 

Branding Beyond the Pale

In last year’s rebranding announcement, Zuckerberg said the new name was inspired by the Greek word meta, which means “beyond.” A quick perusal of an online Greek etymology database shows “beyond” to be a third-tier meaning, with the first tier being “after, behind; among, between” and the second tier being “changed, altered.” 

Zuckerberg is quick to point out that the company is more than just Facebook. In that sense, Meta is intended to get people to look beyond the single platform to see a more complete picture of the company. The name is also designed to alter people’s perception of social media toward the “metaverse,” a virtual or augmented reality where all our social interactions can take place in a more immersive, physically present way. A metaverse seems wholly consistent with the company’s mission to “bring the world closer together” when only seen in a positive light. While this may feel similar to the early phase of Facebook (when digitally networked sociability was fun and exciting), in Meta’s brave new world, the monetization engine, shareholders, and clients are already a material reality. These factors generate an inexorable drive toward quantifying, predicting, and monetizing as much human behavior on the Metaverse as possible.

The second level meaning of meta is change, which relates it to another term with theological rather than technological weight: Metanoia. In English, metanoia denotes penitence or spiritual conversion. The English form draws from the Greek metanoia, which signifies repentance. The only effective form of repentance for Meta is to go back, instead of beyond, to rectify its business model’s ill effects. The revelations of the Facebook papers demand metanoia, not meta.

Deep Capture on a Monster Scale

Of course, a remedy for the negative externalities of algorithmically generated profit may mean less profit, which has proven untenable for Zuckerberg and the company.

In the 2001 Pixar film, Monster’s Inc., a power company in the monster world, found that scaring human children generated energy and profits. The discovery led to a highly successful scare-based business model and a grand conspiracy to preserve this waning resource. When the top company scare team, Sully and Mike, discover that scaring children is actually a pretty horrible thing to do (thanks to Boo, a little human girl lost in the monster world), the corporate overlords jump into action to preserve the status quo by exiling the monster heroes who are determined to return Boo home safe. 

The human child commodity and the company’s scare-based energy production platform required economic capture. An energy-hungry monster society had to be convinced that scaring was the only way to produce the needed energy. Regulators and workers were captive to the company’s societal power, ensuring that monsters kept scaring and energy kept flowing. 

Sully accidentally scares Boo in the scare demonstration

The moment that gets me choked up is when Sully sees that his monster scaring makes Boo cry. This is a revelation leading to metanoia. In the end, Sully and Mike discover that making kids laugh releases exponentially more free energy than scaring—mainly through Mike’s exceptional burps. The metanoia revolutionizes Monster’s Inc. business model.

The history of mass media and social media share similarities of economic capture with Monsters, Inc. In the print and broadcast eras, advertisers were beholden to media companies (newspapers, magazines, and television networks) because there were no other means to reach consumers. This type of advertising was costly and inefficient. Still, the excess profits from commercial capture produced social benefits in the exchange: free entertainment that improved in quality over time, as well as nearly 200 years of journalism essential to a healthy democracy.

Social media platforms have drawn most of these inefficient mass media advertisers into the highly efficient ecosystem of algorithmically-driven digital marketing. Businesses and organizations have embraced social media marketing for its accessibility, lower cost, and high efficiency. Social media cultivates users to fuel this arrangement, offering individuals a free and highly accessible means of social connection and free expression. For many, the combination of social media and mobile devices now comprise the bulk of how they experience the Internet.

In a 2003 paper3 by Harvard law professor Jon Hanson and Harvard Law graduate David Yosifon, “Deep Capture” is defined as “The disproportionate and self-serving influence that the relatively powerful tend to exert over all the exterior and interior situational features that materially influence the maintenance and extension of that power.” Hanson and Yosifon explain that deep capture includes features of platforms that claim to be and are experienced as independent, self-determined choices with benign personal and social impact. 

“Because the situation generally tends to be invisible (or nearly so) to us, deep capture tends to be as well.”

Hanson & Yosifon

Meta and its social media properties have reconstituted a much deeper level of capture than the legacy mass media forms that preceded, with a diminishing level of public good and mounting evidence of harm. Even in the wake of the Facebook Papers1 and hard evidence of the inversion of growing profit and decreasing user happiness, businesses, organizations, and individuals have little practical ability to opt out. Social media platforms have become embedded in society to such an extent that economic and social communication needs cannot be met elsewhere, creating a kind of “Hotel California” syndrome where you may check-in and out but never truly leave. The thought of exiting these platforms is tantamount to disappearing from the Internet.

A Shallow Brand of Change

Meta’s rebranding has been a surface-level change. The sign at the corporate entrance has a new logo. The NASDAQ ticker symbol change from “FB” to “META” distances shareholders from the negative connotations of past scandals. The underlying shift is not a transformation of value creation rooted in a change of heart but a doubling down of the same form of value generation. The mission statement to “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together” is the antithesis of the powerlessness and discord that Meta’s human monetization has wrought.

When Sully saw how Boo was harmed by his violent scaring, he instantly knew he could never scare a child again—even if it meant that his world would go without energy. 

Mark Zuckerberg has looked upon the social and psychological damage wrought by his platform’s algorithms and profit extraction model over the past decade and still insists that meta instead of metanoia is enough. If the past 12 months of stock performance should teach the company anything, it’s that avoiding metanoia will not prevent a downfall. 

Even the promise of the Metaverse could not deter Meta’s enormous loss in value. Recall how monster CEO Mr. Waternoose faced the same dilemma at Monsters Incorporated. With children becoming indifferent to conventional scaring from his staff of monsters, new energy production technology was needed. The “scare extractor” showed he was willing to suck the life out of children to keep the energy coming.

Perhaps it was inevitable that social media would bring about a user data-driven profit model instead of something else. Looking back on Meta’s origin story, Zuckerberg resisted conventional advertising in the early days2. He allowed the social value of Facebook to flourish for users unfettered by monetization until the level of engagement hit an inflection point that kicked off unstoppable annual growth in revenue per user. Between 2011 and 2021, revenue grew from $5 to $41 per user annually.4

Metanoia requires that Meta become willing to accept lower profits by creating more societal good and less harm through their platforms. Algorithms can be reengineered, the software can be re-coded, and mission statements can be made more tangible IRL. Ironically, the market value lost in 2022 is likely to have exceeded the cost for Meta to make good on its mission statement. 

“Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.”

John the Baptist, Matthew 3:8

John the Baptist admonished the Pharisees and Sadducees that true metanoia is made a reality through the fruit of action. In the Metaverse, a virtually real mission may seem sufficient. In the tangible, real world, it’s empty “meta” fruit.

—-

“The Facebook Papers,” The Wall Street Journal, (2021): https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-facebook-files-11631713039

Todd Wold, “Not a Foregone Conclusion: The Early History of Facebook’s Political Economy of Social Media,” Artifact Analysis, 1(1), pp. 1-17 (2022): https://www.researchgate.net/publication/358785226_Not_A_Foregone_Conclusion_The_Early_History_of_Facebook%27s_Political_Economy_of_Social_Media

Jon Hanson & David Yosifon, “The Situation: An Introduction to the Situational Character, Critical Realism, Power Economics, and Deep Capture,” University of Pennsylvania Law Review, 152(1), pp. 129-344 (2003): https://scholarship.law.upenn.edu/penn_law_review/vol152/iss1/9/

S. Dixon, “Meta: average revenue per user 2011-2021,” Statista.com, (2022): https://www.statista.com/statistics/234056/facebooks-average-advertising-revenue-per-user/

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Author: toddwold

Todd Wold is an Assistant Professor of Communication at Asbury University School of Communication Arts in Wilmore, Kentucky, and a Ph.D. candidate (ABD) at Regent University at Virginia Beach, Virginia. His research interests include the political economy of social media and crowd patronage platforms, the digital displacement of faith practices and authority in church communities, and transcendence in filmmaking.

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