Social media companies have a big enough challenge policing today’s platforms, and yet our earliest glimpses of the ‘metaverse’ have already demonstrated that they bring with them a whole load of new problems.
As Parmy Olson wrote for Bloomberg this week, social VR can be an uncomfortable experience for anyone presenting as female:
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.
And ‘uncomfortable’ and ‘awkward’ are just the start of it. MIT Technology Review reported
this week that Meta’s Horizon Worlds has already experienced an incident of sexual assault:
According to Meta, on November 26, a beta tester reported something deeply troubling: she had been groped by a stranger on Horizon Worlds. On December 1, Meta revealed that she’d posted her experience in the Horizon Worlds beta testing group on Facebook.
More troubling? Meta’s response was that she should have used the ‘Safe Zone’ feature. MIT Technology review explains: “Safe Zone is a protective bubble users can activate when feeling threatened. Within it, no one can touch them, talk to them, or interact in any way until they signal that they would like the Safe Zone lifted.”
So, keeping safe is down to individual users having to make bubbles around themselves? That’s worryingly close to police saying
it’s women’s responsibility to focus on their safety whenever they leave home, rather than men’s responsibility to not attack them.
Back in the Bloomberg piece, Olson says that Microsoft was moderating an event she attended in its AltSpaceVR service: “Of the dozen or so people who’d attended that panel, four were moderators secretly keeping an eye on everyone’s behavior.”
That’s a good start, but it’s hard to scale.
User safety is very different in traditional dominated social media than it is in a 3D virtual space. Once you’re interacting in an approximation of the real world, real-world social rules around things like physical space and body language start to apply, and the moderation challenges become completely different. But just as we shouldn’t expect women to exclude themselves from physical spaces to avoid harassment in the real world, why should they walk around in bubbles in virtual worlds?