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/

Selling #TheResistance empty calories: Pepsi’s ad isn’t unique, just exceptionally lousy at hiding its goal

Mark Laver, assistant professor of music at Grinnell College, has an excellent piece on the Kendall Jenner/Pepsi ad debacle in Fortune magazine online that is well worth reading. If you’ve not seen the ad, view the long-form version here.

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Pepsi “activists” on the march.

There’s been endless criticism leveled at Pepsi over the ad, and Laver believes we’ve crossed a new threshold in the social media era where public outcry can be heard loud enough and fast enough to get an Ad campaign halted before it even starts. Pepsi’s PR department and Jenner’s publicist are going to be consumed with reputation repair for months.

Laver quite accurately describes the ad as “appropriating music, language, and iconography from the counterculture of the moment to sell merchandise to young consumers.” For Pepsi, this means reaching into the counter-cultural zeitgeist, newly energized by the recent political unrest, and harnessing the loose electricity to sell sugar water.

During my teen years I worked in the fast food industry, where I learned that the soda machine required “charged” carbonated water to make the beverages that completed the value meal trifecta. That word best describes the energy source Pepsi’s agency creatives hoped to couple to their venerable soda pop brand: something electrically charged and wildly popular with their target youth audience.

some textIn the 1978 classic of semiotic analysis, Decoding Advertisements, Judith Williamson observed the siren call of strong cultural meaning values for advertisers. The magic trick is to somehow tap into those meanings using symbols (art and copy) that go beyond simple association and more toward an integration of a brand or product and the social meaning making process in the mind of the consumer. Advertising invites a meaning making and interpellation process, where conscious and unconscious processes link images, emotions, social meaning and products; and where one is enticed to become the subject of the ad and derive meaning through purchase and consumption of the product.

The technique of advertising is to correlate feelings, moods or attributes to tangible objects, linking possibly unattainable things with those that are attainable, and thus reassuring us that the former are within reach. – Judith Williamson

Ads transcend the border between simply meeting a tangible need and manufacturing less tangible and more spiritual desires. Mythical ad man Don Draper notes in a season 1 episode of Mad Men called “The Wheel” that ads create an existential “itch”—an often profound sense of lack—while promising to soothe this itch at the same time. Critical theorist Arthur Berger notes, “Needs are finite, desires are infinite.” What brand wouldn’t want to plug into such an endless power source? What’s more, Berger contends that susceptibility to such appeals is more acute in an affluent society:

Needs are finite, but desires are infinite, and thus, as soon as our needs have been taken care of, we become obsessed with what we don’t have but want. – Arthur Berger

The meaning created and shared in social movements is some of the strongest mojo one can come by in a culture—as strong and deeply felt as religious faith but more about the urgency of the present than the past, and just as sacred.

Much of that which goes by the name advertising is an explicit offer of a sense of identity, meaning, purpose, and community. Most ads now appeal to one or more of these religious dimensions of life. – Alan Hirsch in The Forgotten Ways

It is that sacredness of a movement’s social meaning—it’s affiliative, identity-giving nature—that leads to the uniformly harsh backlash we have seen over the past few days. The stronger the meaning value, the greater the offensiveness in the appropriation. Movements aim to change the world. Soda pop will only change your body—and not in a good way.

Laver points to the blind hubris of Pepsi in doing this for the purpose of selling what is clearly junk food: “It takes things that actually are really important and profoundly meaningful in our world and uses them to help package and sell a product that is tremendously unhealthy.” Yet, such a cultural moment was just too tempting to leave alone for a brand that trades in generational energy.

To put it simply, Pepsi’s ad was so bad and so blatant, their true intentions were all too obvious. Yet they are far from unique in advertising.

Matthew McAllister in The Commercialization of American Culture contends that the mercenary use of social meanings in advertising tends to devalue those meanings in the process:

The obvious purpose of an advertisement is to sell a product…. Everything that is in an advertisement, then, is subordinated to that purpose. By definition, to put a referent system in an ad is to devalue it. When used in an ad, according to the ad’s inherent symbolic hierarchy, the referent system is subordinate to the purpose of selling the product. – Matthew McAllister

Just a few days after the news broke on the Pepsi ad, NBC’s Saturday Night Live satirized the spot in a biting sketch that focused on the ad’s writer-director and the feedback he should have sought before his big-break project moved past the concepting stage. It raised the obvious question: Why didn’t the agency creatives predict the blowback? The clear answer is that advertisers don’t really care to make political statements. They’re more interested in helping consumers make their own political statements by consuming their product as an essential proof text.

Later in the April 8 program Saturday Night Live and host Louis C. K. broadcast an even more piercing sketch that musically expressed gratuitous thanks to a character named “Scott” for his world-changing armchair social media activism—hashtagging and sharing support for many of the same social movements that the Pepsi ad attempts to appropriate.

Therein lies the truth. Scott deceives himself into believing he can hashtag, retweet, share and emoji his way to a social conscience, while today’s biggest brands spend millions make him feel like guzzling a Pepsi makes the real difference. Loose electricity meets empty calories.

Lucy’s Burning Question and the Indispensability of the Liberal Arts

I don’t feel pain, fear, desire. It’s like, all things that make us human are fading away. It’s like, the less human I feel, all this knowledge about everything—quantum physics, applied mathematics, the infinite capacity of the cell’s nucleus—they’re all exploding inside my brain—all this knowledge. I don’t know what to do with it. – Lucy, from the film Lucy, 2014.

LucyScreenScience fiction cinema, on its best day, weaves compelling narratives about science fact in order to question and grapple with the ramifications of human technologies and discoveries. Filmmakers in the genre uses the creative imagination to explore “what if” scenarios fictionally and allow viewers to wrest some wisdom from the stunning new knowledge that has invaded the collective consciousness.

This is the case with Lucy, a 2014 film directed by Luc Besson. The film’s eponymous protagonist gains the ability to unlock her total brain potential from a massive amount of a nootropic drug that is accidentally absorbed into her bloodstream. As Lucy’s brain potential expands far beyond the mythical ten percent limit of the average human, the audience joins her in an exhilarating rush of exponential knowledge gathering. The trailer provides a quick rundown of the plot.

It’s important not to take the dubious neuroscience of Lucy too seriously. It’s Lucy’s question about what to do with “all this knowledge” that is the serious topic Besson is exploring.

Recently an article in The Washington Post by Fareed Zakaria struck a nerve among college professors in the Liberal Arts and Humanities, garnering extensive sharing and discussion on social media. “Why America’s obsession with STEM education is dangerous” was a passionate and reasoned argument for the enduring need for a broad education in the Liberal Arts and Humanities.

Technology alone is not enough — that it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our hearts sing. – Steve Jobs

In his article, Zakaria references technology moguls Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs who have each made statements stressing the need for a Liberal Arts education rich in the Humanities—even over and above STEM fields.

And while these are powerful supports for his argument, one can go back much further to a Canadian literature professor who predicted each technology and the resulting industries Bezos, Zuckerberg and Jobs represent—more than 40 years before those technologies arrived.

some textIt’s not hard to find examples of Marshall McLuhan’s uncannily accurate predictions of the Internet, Amazon.com, Wikipedia and social media. McLuhan observed the twentieth century evolution of electronic technology as a means to move information and communicate at light speed—from the telegraph, to the tabulating mainframe computer, to the television, to global networks. This explosion of human knowledge and connectivity demanded creative thinking to help anticipate and understand how this technology would profoundly affect human culture. In many ways, Lucy’s question drove and inspired him.

Yet his prescience and insight did not emanate from an education confined to STEM fields. McLuhan was an English literature professor. His ability to probe communication and information technology and reach into the future to ascertain their effects was borne from his deep understanding of the humanities. At their core, his prognostications were the product of his inventive imagination, drawing upon a literary mind, extrapolating the role of media and technology in the human narrative.

Writing on this topic in the Cross Check blog for Scientific American, John Horgan, an author and teacher at the Stevens Institute of Technology, discussed the argument he makes to his students for emphasizing the humanities in his science courses:

Science has replaced religion as our main source of answers…. Science has told us a lot about ourselves, and we’re learning more every day. But the humanities remind us that we have an enormous capacity for deluding ourselves. – John Horgan

some textAs Zakaria touches on in his article, the importance of art and culture is coded in the DNA of the computer and Internet revolution. Steve Jobs studied design and typography before dropping out of college and co-founding Apple Computer. He had this to say about computer science and programming in a 1995 interview with Robert X. Cringley:

I think everyone should learn how to program a computer, because it teaches you how to think. I view computer science as a liberal art, something everyone should learn to do. – Steve Jobs

Embedded in Job’s statement is the notion that the Liberal Arts play the linchpin role in teaching one how to think.

For Lucy, this is about asking what to do with “all this knowledge.”

This is the same question that must continually be raised by culture’s poets, writers, filmmakers, artists:

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information? – T. S. Eliot, The Rock, 1934

Seeking to answer new questions raised by “all this knowledge” demands the cultivation of a prophetic imagination—something only the Humanities and Liberal Arts can bring to the party. They are indispensable companions to STEM in the cultural endeavor.

Consider America’s vast entertainment industry, built around stories, songs, design and creativity. All of this requires skills far beyond the offerings of a narrow STEM curriculum. – Fareed Zakaria

Beyond raising crucial questions, a commercially successful and entertaining film such as Lucy provides a strong argument for the Liberal Arts because it is an artistic product itself—a product that draws heavily upon STEM to serve the narrative. In this case, the art of film, itself, answers the question of what to do with all this knowledge: Create culture.

Concerning the Object and Subject of Love

It’s been both fascinating and annoying to have the past two weeks of social media chock full of advertising promoting the 50 Shades of Grey film and articles upon articles of critiques, commentaries, film reviews and denouncements. The novel and the film have become the object catalyzing strong reactions, as well as a means for bloggers generate social media currency and expand their audience. The web analytics for this phenomenon are off the chart (249 million Google web hits on the title alone). Lord knows what this poorly reviewed flick will net at the box office given the marketing, hype and hysteria it has generated.

This certainly makes writing a blog post of my own the pot calling the kettle black. Yet, at the risk of being accused of clickbait, I stumbled upon a couple of references spanning Martin Buber and C.S. Lewis this week that linked a key idea of human relationships and communication to 50 Shades and made it worth sharing in the form of a post.
This past Sunday Bruxy Cavey, teaching pastor at The Meetings House in Toronto, gave a teaching on Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well from John 4:10. While I highly recommend the entire message, toward the end Cavey provided an easy-to-understand overview of Martin Buber’s I & Thou—admittedly better that some of the times I have attempted to describe this in my communication classroom. The basic idea is that there are two modes of relatedness between people: one of relating to the other as an object, a means to an end; and one of relating to the other as a subject, through what Buber describes as dialogue—the “inter-human.”
Having been reminded of the I & Thou concept while listening to The Meeting House podcast on my drive to work, I was struck by a correlation to this C.S. Lewis quote from The Four Loves in an article I came across in my social media feed (reposted from a blogger previously unknown to me):

Sex is a sensory pleasure; that is, an event occurring within one’s own body. We use a most unfortunate idiom when we say, of a lustful man prowling the streets, that he ‘wants a woman.’ Strictly speaking, a woman is just what he does not want. He wants a pleasure for which a woman happens to be the necessary piece of apparatus. How much he cares about the woman as such may be gauged by his attitude to her five minutes after fruition (one does not keep the carton after one has smoked the cigarettes).

In many ways, 50 Shades’ Christian Grey is a metaphor of the kind of alienation that is all too common in a culture where more and more of our relationships subsist in mediated, even titrated, human contact. We shun the openness and vulnerability required for I & Thou relationships in favor of connections where we can control the outcome and get what we want. Christian Grey’s need for a “contract” with his submissive partner is the ultimate symbol of a thoroughly objectified relationship—which is quite honestly the relational position where such abuse and exploitation occur, as Lewis points out.

This is why I feel it is important to recognize the great potential for all of us to lose our ability to relate to one another as subjects rather than objectified means to an end when more and more of our interpersonal communication is digitally mediated to afford us more control, novelty and less vulnerability. Research is showing a lower readiness for first-hand encounters as people gravitate to simulations or personal technologies that afford relational control.

On Valentines Day 2015 it is helpful to reflect on the temporality and exhaustibility of objectified love and the perpetual nature of love comprised in the I & Thou of two subjects. Let the 50 Shades conversation in the culture cause us to embrace a higher love, just as Jesus related to, and with, the Samaritan woman and called her to an eternal life of the same:

Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.