the zucc

What Does Facebook Know That We Don’t?

Photo: Facebook

In a brief announcement yesterday, Facebook announced that it was rebranding. Not much is changing, except that Facebook is now styled as FACEBOOK in the company’s messaging, and it’s being more heavily highlighted in company apps. “Today, we’re updating our company branding to be clearer about the products that come from Facebook,” the announcement says. “We’re introducing a new company logo and further distinguishing the Facebook company from the Facebook app, which will keep its own branding.”

Simple. You get it. Facebook, the app, is now part of FACEBOOK, the conglomerate that owns Facebook, WhatsApp, Messenger, Instagram, and Oculus. It’s a bit like when Google restructured itself to become Alphabet, of which Google is a subsidiary — only with a confusing redundancy in naming, and without the financial and corporate restructuring.

The larger point of this rebranding, at least outwardly, is to communicate to users that multiple, seemingly disparate apps they use are actually all made by Facebook (I mean, FACEBOOK). This is an interesting move, considering how much people — including people who use Facebook a lot — do not trust Facebook. Part of Instagram’s and WhatsApp’s appeal is that they are not Facebook. That their product was becoming more like Facebook is reportedly what forced out Instagram’s co-founders earlier this year. Same goes for WhatsApp’s founders. “The app you like — from the makers of the app you hate but begrudgingly use anyway!”

The announcement continues, “In June we began including ‘from Facebook’ within all our apps. Over the coming weeks, we will start using the new brand within our products and marketing materials, including a new company website.” Facebook, a company with dubious name recognition, is making that name even more prominent in apps that, for the most part, have benefited from their brands not being super closely aligned with Facebook.

This is … a truly menacing flex. What does Mark Zuckerberg know that we don’t? What is the data telling them to do this? Oh? You hate Facebook? What if we brought unwanted attention to our less tarnished brands by making our logo even BIGGER? It’s impressive!

Instagram’s new sign-in screen. Photo: Facebook

Historically, Facebook has hidden this connection, even going so far as to obscure the ownership behind other names, like a New York City building owned by a shell corporation. As I wrote in June of 2018:

In Apple and Google’s app stores, for instance, developers are required to supply the name of the app’s author, either a human name or a company. Instagram is listed as made by Instagram, Inc. WhatsApp comes from WhatsApp, Inc. The Oculus app is made by Oculus VR, LLC. The VPN service Onavo, which Facebook encourages users to install as a privacy tool — and the traffic of which Facebook analyzes as an early warning system about potential competitors — is made by Onavo, Inc.

Downplaying Facebook’s ownership of multiple popular apps lets it pretend that there is more choice and diversity in the social media marketplace than there actually is. Mark Zuckerberg often repeats the line that the average person uses eight social media apps, but doesn’t usually mention the fact that he “owns or clones” many of them. But the calculus has changed since more politicians have begun to call for Facebook to be broken up. Elizabeth Warren has made it a prominent message in her campaign, and Mark Zuckerberg has described her policy proposals as an “existential” threat.

To combat the idea that Facebook can be dismantled, Facebook is now rushing to smash all of its services together, like a half-dozen different globs of Play-Doh that become impossible to separate. Core to this strategy is combining and integrating all of its messaging services — WhatsApp, Instagram, and Messenger. The message from Facebook is that it needs the public to understand that the apps it assumes are different are actually the same — and they need each other to survive. Obscuring the fact that all of these companies are owned by Facebook (whoops, force of habit. I mean FACEBOOK) helped all of these services grow. Now that same obfuscation threatens to break them apart.

What Does Facebook Know That We Don’t?