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Will Meta’s bet on the metaverse work?

November 4, 2021, 10:47 PM UTC

I was walking in downtown Palo Alto, Calif. last week when a reporter, armed with a video camera, stopped me to ask a question: “Excuse me,” he said, “Would you be interested in sharing any thoughts on Facebook’s rebrand?” 

I told him I was a business journalist myself, and probably not an appropriate interviewee for his segment. But of course, I do have thoughts on Facebook’s new identity. Lots of them. And I’m going to share them here with you.

For starters, since Hebrew is my native language, the company’s name of choice, Meta, made me chuckle (it means death). And, of course, I couldn’t help feeling cynical about the whole thing—it’s hard not to see the rebrand as an attempt to distract attention away from Facebook’s current troubles. 

Then again, we’ve seen big brands rename themselves before. And, while it might take years, eventually the new moniker sticks, regardless of the reason for the rebrand. I can definitely see a day when younger consumers don’t think of Facebook as Facebook, but rather of Meta—a name that CEO Mark Zuckerberg says better encompasses everything the company does today, plus its vision for a virtual reality future. 

But whether or not the name eventually catches on, here’s the bigger question: What if the metaverse isn’t the future? What if Facebook, now Meta, is betting the farm on a technology that may not live up to its hype, at least not with the billion people Zuckerberg would need in order to justify his rebrand?

To be sure, the embattled CEO is not the only one with high hopes for the metaverse. Just this week, venture capital firms Sequoia Capital and Index Ventures led a $50 million round into Gather, a startup that lets companies design their own virtual offices and conference rooms using a series of video game-like templates. And plenty of big players that are not named Meta, like Microsoft and Epic Games, are placing their bets on the metaverse. But those other big companies? They’re not trying to change their entire identities in the process. 

While COVID has led to a lot more interest and investment in all sorts of virtual reality applications, especially for the workplace, there are plenty of skeptics, for a variety of reasons. Personally, I’m much more excited about seeing people face-to-face again versus spending even more time in digital platforms—whether it’s Zoom or the metaverse. But maybe that’s just me. 

Interestingly, the spot where the reporter stopped me last week was just a block away from where the company formerly known as Facebook initially set up an office in Silicon Valley. I went in there, uninvited, back in the mid-2000s. I was starting out as a journalist, working for a startup magazine that failed. And a colleague and I decided to try and interview this up-and-coming tech entrepreneur named Mark Zuckerberg. We walked into Facebook’s small office, basically a one-room open space, and asked to speak to Zuckerberg. He wasn’t in. But it was still a thrill. Walking up those stairs, seeing members of the early team in person, working up the nerve to ask for their CEO. You can’t recreate that in VR. 

The metaverse is promising, but I’m not sure I’d bet the company on it.  

Michal Lev-Ram
@mlevram
michal.levram@fortune.com

NEWSWORTHY

Vaxx up, corporate America. From Wall Street to Silicon Valley, workers across the country are facing a new deadline: Jan. 4. That’s when the Occupational Safety and Health Administration says private companies, including federal contractors, with at least 100 employees will need to make sure their staffs are fully vaccinated by or begin rolling out weekly testing to those still unvaccinated. 

The world’s biggest exchange heads to the cloud. On Thursday, CME Group, the bourse runner that deals in all things derivatives, inked a 10-year partnership with Google that will entail moving its trading infrastructure into the cloud. Under the deal’s terms, the Alphabet-owned search engine and ad giant has agreed to invest $1 billion into CME’s business through a series of non-voting convertible preferred shares. 

Nikola to settle up with the SEC. Electric-truck maker hopeful Nikola is likely to pay $125 million to settle an investigation stemming from what regulators have determined to be misleading statements by founder Trevor Milton, who resigned from the company in 2020 and has since been indicted on fraud charges. In a filing Thursday, Nikola said it plans to try and get Milton to reimburse the company for the penalty, according to The Wall Street Journal. 

Female-founded business funding soars. New data from PitchBook shows that funding to female-founded companies totaled $40.4 billion for the first nine months of 2021, nearly double the $23.7 billion in 2019, according to Protocol. It wasn’t just a good windfall for founders, either. Investors in female-founded companies walked away with an all-time high of $59 billion in exits during the period, too. 

IBM’s info tech spin-off hits the markets. Kyndryl, the business that was recently the subject of a $19 billion spin off from IBM, started trading Thursday on the New York Stock Exchange. The company, whose business revolves around IT infrastructure, was met with weak interest by investors, though. Shares tumbled in their first day of trading, dropping more than 6%.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Bring in the otters. California’s underwater kelp forests are under attack. A dearth of sea otters in California (down from thousands to dozens) has led the purple urchins that otters typically prey on to swell in numbers—thereby hurting the kelp forests in the picturesque ocean off of California’s coast and that have long acted as a natural way to address rising levels of carbon. 

So, the Monterey Bay Aquarium has been working to reintroduce otters into the ecosystem in hopes of allowing those kelp forests to thrive once again. The potential gains are significant: Though estimates remain uncertain, some research has found that if a kelp forest grows well to the degree that even just 1% of the carbon absorbed ends up being relegated in the deep sea, it would be equal to canceling the emissions of 100,000 cars. 

From the article: 

A sea otter is a ravenous ecosystem engineer of the highest order. To stay warm and healthy, they eat a quarter of their body weight a day, repeatedly diving to the seafloor to gather urchins, crabs, and bivalves like clams. “By having to eat as much as they do in order to survive in their environment, they have really drastic impacts on those habitats, and they're overwhelmingly positive,” says Fujii. (Another program further up the California coast has tried bringing back a different kind of “urchin slayer”—human divers.)

Keeping the urchin population in check preserves the kelp, which is vital for the ecosystem in two main ways. First, the forest is a habitat for fish, which are the food source for birds and other marine mammals, like sea lions. Second, the seaweed is part of what scientists call a “blue carbon” ecosystem, meaning a coastal or marine area that sequesters carbon. (Other areas include wetlands and mangroves.)

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BEFORE YOU GO

"It felt like coming home." At a time when companies like GameStop and Blackberry are in national headlines it would only make sense that yet another mainstay of the 2000s was bound for a comeback: Neopets. Indeed, the virtual creators beloved by millennials for years only to be cast aside as they matured are seeing a rise in popularity once again, as The New York Times reported, leaving one to only wonder that if the stock market operating within Neopia has also been seeing meme movements. Now that would be meta. 

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