A woman in the Metaverse? It's awkward, messier than Mark Zuckerberg’s vision
Mark Zuckerberg has said the “metaverse” is where we’ll connect with family and friends. The chief executive officer of Meta Platforms Inc. (a.k.a. Facebook) is betting that we will express ourselves “in new, joyful, completely immersive ways.” He’s bet the future of his company on it.
Over the course of two weeks, I ventured into his virtual platform and others. I put on an Oculus Quest 2 on loan from Meta and mingled with people at an array of virtual locations including a concert, a church service, a conference and a speed-dating event. I found that his vision was only part of the story. Connecting with people in virtual reality is fun and exciting, but it’s also intense, tiring and often awkward. Going in as a woman was also deeply uncomfortable at times.
I visited social virtual reality (VR) apps that host hundreds and sometimes thousands of people each day. Last Thursday, Meta opened access to its social VR platform Horizon Worlds, for anyone in the U.S. or Canada who is above 18. But when I visited its precursor, Horizon Venues, I found the place teeming with kids. My conclusion was that many of the challenges Zuckerberg has faced on social media, like barring kids and policing harassment, could well haunt him in the metaverse, too.
So what is social VR like? Imagine gaming combined with zany, old-style Internet chat rooms: messy, experimental and often dominated by men. There are trolls and obnoxious kids. And while most people are generally well-behaved and enthusiastic about the new medium, there seem to be few measures in place to prevent bad behavior beyond a few quick guidelines when you enter a space and features that let you block and mute problematic users.
On a visit to Horizon Venues for my first mingling experience, I picked an avatar that was a close approximation of what I looked like in real life: straight brown hair and a blazer and jeans. But it meant that when I was teleported into the main lobby area — a vast room with a tree in the middle — I was the only woman among a dozen or so men. We were all cartoonish-looking avatars floating around with no legs. Quite a few of us were in leather jackets.
Within moments, I was surprised by a deep voice in my ear, as if someone was whispering into it. “Hey. How are you?” One of the avatars had zoomed up to within inches of me, then floated away, taking me aback. A small group of male avatars began to form around me, staying silent. As I chatted with a man from Israel named Eran who was showing me how to jump (you need to figure out how to activate it via your settings), several in the surrounding crowd started holding their thumbs and forefingers out in front of them, making a frame. Digital photos of my bemused avatar appeared between their hands. One by one, they began handing the photos to me. The experience was awkward and I felt a bit like a specimen.
“Just chuck em’ away,” said a man in a bright blue suit with a London accent who had just floated up to us. Despite many attempts to shake away the portraits, they kept sticking to my digital hand like flypaper.
Meta warns all visitors to Horizon Venues that its “trained safety specialists” can dredge up a recording of any incident, and that users can activate a Safe Zone around themselves by pressing a button on their virtual wrist, muting the people around them. I didn’t feel unsafe, but I was uncomfortable, and there were no clear rules about etiquette and personal space.
“Are there more men than women here, do you find?” I asked the group of men around me.
“Maybe,” said Eran. He and others largely praised the social VR experience. “This is the only place where you can meet and hear other people from other parts of the world,” said a man in Bulgaria. Another in Scotland was isolating at home with Covid, and this was the closest he could get to mingling with others.
“Let’s jump,” said Eran. Several of us started jumping in the metaverse.
This was fun, but disruptions made it hard to keep conversations going. To my left, an adult male avatar who had the voice of a boy easily under the age of 10, was screeching what sounded like an obscenity over and over. Someone from a group of Spanish-speakers kept zooming into our group and coughing. “Sorry! I have Covid,” he’d say, before floating away and giggling. A giant blonde man called BabyFace made strange, animal noises. The world of gaming has a term for people who disrupt others just to annoy them: griefers. Several people I spoke to in the metaverse said griefers were a constant problem on its social platforms.
On Facebook, thousands of content moderators work around the clock to flag posts for hate speech, misinformation and more, with the support of software that can read text. But moderating behavior in VR is much harder, both computationally and manually. Instead of just scanning text, you have to process spoken language, visible gestures, how people are moving between one another and more.
The flip side to this is contact theory, the notion that people are more tolerant when they meet in person and can make eye contact or hear someone’s voice. Is it possible people will just be nicer to each other in the metaverse?
Jeremy Bailenson, a professor of communication at Stanford University, is studying how people’s comfort levels change in virtual reality depending on where they are. Having studied VR for 20 years, he closely follows etiquette: When we first met in a virtual meeting room, he kept a respectful distance before stepping forward to “shake” my digital hand.
“If I got to look you in the eye and get a little closer, it’s really hard to say something mean to you,” he said. But, he admitted, some social VR apps today were like the “Wild, Wild West.” Berensen regularly teaches his classes in virtual reality, but he won’t take his students to the social platform VRChat, known for its griefers.
Around 50,000 people visit VRChat’s virtual clubs and spaces each day, according to a spokesman. “We have a dedicated team that focuses solely on user safety and security,” he added, and visitors can mute or block others to protect themselves from griefing.
I didn’t meet any griefers on VRChat and found the place to be mostly wacky and disorientating. Instead of human avatars, there were tiny penguins, fairies and skeletons who gossiped and joked around. At a virtual bar, a giant cat in a dress served me pancakes, while a medieval knight talked about the engine capacity of Tesla Inc.’s Roadster with a cactus who nodded in agreement.
Altspace VR, the social platform run by Microsoft Inc., was more civilized. A speed dating event there had a host who was quick to intervene when a male avatar started hovering around me and another woman. But Altspace also has its trolls. “Folks just drop into the event and they’re hopping on stage or they have their mic on and they’re playing inappropriate things,” said a panelist at a virtual conference I visited. Within minutes of entering an outdoorsy space on the platform and chatting to a woman I met there, a male avatar began following us around, saying we were pretty and asking to be friends. We muted and blocked him. Microsoft appeared to be cracking down: Of the dozen or so people who’d attended that panel, four were moderators secretly keeping an eye on everyone’s behavior.
A spokesperson for Microsoft said the number of moderators it had at each event varied. Users could also block bad actors and activate a “space bubble” around themselves. He didn’t say how many daily visitors came to Altspace. One person who regularly organized events there said it was in the hundreds.
Stanford’s Bailenson said that when it came to bad behavior, virtual reality’s big advantage over social media was that harmful content couldn’t go viral. I’m not sure that’s necessarily true when you can record any experience in VR and share it with others. But that’s beside the point. The metaverse’s social challenges won’t mirror Facebook’s. They’ll likely be extensions of what I experienced, and what others have also pointed to: breaches of social etiquette that could eventually turn into harassment, or bullying. Maybe that will affect individuals instead of groups, but that won’t make it any less harmful, or worthy of policing.
Parmy Olson is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology. She previously reported for the Wall Street Journal and Forbes and is the author of 'We Are Anonymous.'
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