Back in October, a mere four months ago, there was only one story that I can remember competing with the pandemic for airtime: the testimony of Frances Haugen, the Facebook whistleblower who left the company with thousands of pages of internal documents and went before Congress to accuse her former employers of knowingly causing harm to their users, particularly young adults. While I recognize that the memory may have been exaggerated with time, I honestly can’t remember being able to turn on the news for at least a week without seeing a story about her.
As the New York Times put it on October 28th, “Facebook has lurched from controversy to controversy since Mark Zuckerberg started it as a Harvard undergrad in 2004. But the actions of Frances Haugen, a former product manager, have created a backlash and public relations crisis that stand apart.”
Haugen pulled the spotlight directly onto Facebook and accused them of “prioritizing their own profits over public safety and putting people’s lives at risk,” and the world listened. Haugen changed everything.
And then, all at once, we just moved on.
Headlines like ‘Who is Frances Haugen?‘ and ‘Watch Live: Facebook Whistle-Blower Testifies in Parliament‘ simply dried up. There was no end to the story, no climactic moment — what looked from within to be Facebook’s biggest controversy ever ended with a whimper.
So why did we forget? Why did Haugen simply drop out of the news cycle like she never was? Because Mark Zuckerberg found a way to take back control of the narrative. Also on the 28th, mere hours after the Times printed such a dramatic assessment of Hogan’s importance, Zuckerberg went live at Facebook Connect to announce that this company was now called Meta, and it’s primary task was now building “the metaverse.”
And just like that, Haugen was driven out of the spotlight and replaced by Times headlines like ‘Investors Snap Up Metaverse Real Estate in a Virtual Land Boom,’ ‘Getting Married in the Metaverse,’ and, perhaps worst of all, ‘Are You Missing Out on the Metaverse?’
To be fair, even the writers of those articles had their doubts, and expressed them, but that doesn’t change the fact that Mark Zuckerberg’s new favorite word suddenly had more press than his critics did.
Zuckerberg’s sales pitch became the story, because we let it become the story. And I’ll admit fault here, even I wrote about the metaverse and not about Haugen’s testimony, because the whole Meta campaign is a perfectly crafted lead. It’s not that it’s a good idea, in fact I think Wired Editor-in-Chief Gideon Lichfield described the metaverse best when he called it “an ingeniously vague label for a bunch of overhyped things that will mostly fail,” but it’s pithy and simplistic and it captures the imagination. It’s the magician’s hat that Zuckerberg waves in his left hand even as he makes bad press disappear with his right.
So I say we need to remember. We need to remember that Meta isn’t a new company, not when it’s run by the same men and follows the same course.
This is a choice we make, to pay attention to “the metaverse” and not the real harm that Facebook/Meta has done and continues to do. We can take the camera back, and choose to focus on the story that should have stayed in the headlines all along.
So the next time you open Instagram, remember. Remember that rebranding away from the name Facebook, and the baggage Frances Haugen gave it, is nothing more than a snake slithering out of its old skin. It’s the same snake, and it can still bite.