The metaverse is here … kind of. But what does that even mean?
The term exploded into the zeitgeist last year when Facebook rebranded itself as Meta, sending Google searches for “metaverse” spiking. Its evangelists tout it as the next iteration of socializing online. Microsoft is creating a virtual reality version of its Teams meeting tool, and Nike is trying to harness the metaverse to sell people digital Air Jordans for their online avatars.
Plainly put, the metaverse is shorthand for a mix of virtual, augmented and extended reality that comprises an immersive environment built by multiple companies. Think of it as essentially living and carrying out life through a digital avatar in a virtual world where you can do almost anything.
Right now, though, the metaverse is a bit like a Rorschach test: When you look at it, you can see whatever you want to see (especially if you want to see venture capital funding). What’s less meta, though, are the very real concerns about disinformation and harassment that have scaled along with social media companies like Facebook — and whether the companies blazing a trail into the metaverse will be able to limit these harms in an infinitely more complicated virtual world.
Let’s take a tour.
What the metaverse is — and isn’t
First things first: The metaverse does not exist. (Yet.)
There is no single immersive world that is accessible by any virtual reality user. Instead, the metaverse is a federated mix of virtual spaces where people can interact, have meetings or play specific video games. A handful, like the online game Fortnite, offer all three at once. The game’s servers have become a place for people to hang out, play a variety of games, attend concerts and pay money for skins or other digital accessories.
The term “metaverse” itself comes from Neal Stephenson’s 1992 sci-fi novel “Snow Crash.” Stephenson’s metaverse was an immersive digital world set in an anarcho-capitalistic society after a worldwide economic collapse that left corporations acting as quasi-governments. Users accessed it through VR goggles or public-access terminals. The novel follows hacker and pizza delivery driver Hiro Protagonist’s quest to stop a computer virus that damages the brains of metaverse users.
The worlds are virtual, but the money is real
If you’re wondering what’s new here, you’re not alone. The first steps toward the metaverse aren’t wildly different from VR platforms available a few years ago — such as Sony’s PlayStation VR — even if there have been incremental improvements. But in the metaverse, there is always money to be made.
Companies that are building these platforms around VR and video games are motivated by a main underlying goal: to keep you on their platform, and spending money there, for as long as possible. That’s nothing new. The desire to grow that scale, and time spent, has been a feature of social media spaces from Instagram to, yes, Fortnite.
The latest virtual land rush has already caused some high-profile conflicts between competitors. Epic Games, the company behind Fortnite, took Apple to court over Apple’s strict control of payments in its App Store, including in-app purchases from Fortnite players.
Venture capital firms spent more than $10 billion last year alone betting that the metaverse will come to fruition. And established firms are getting into the game through acquisitions. Microsoft announced in January that it was buying video game company Activision Blizzard for nearly $70 billion — the largest purchase in Microsoft’s history and one that CEO Satya Nadella framed as a step into the metaverse.
The technology is being built to give people, largely in wealthy nations, the ability to enter a true metaverse when it emerges. But creating one virtual platform that all people can come to is more of a challenge than it might seem.
“This fully realized vision is still a ways off, and although the direction is clear, our path ahead is not perfectly defined,” Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg said Wednesday on the company’s earnings call. “But I’m pleased with the momentum and the progress that we’ve made so far, and I’m confident these are the right investments for us to focus on going forward.”
The problems of the real world intrude on the virtual one
Amid lofty promises about the metaverse’s potential, there are already concerns that its architects aren’t paying enough attention to the very real problem of online harassment.
In December, a beta tester for Meta’s VR social platform, Horizon Worlds, said she had been virtually groped on the platform. Meta’s review of the incident concluded that the tester should have implemented the “Safe Zone” tool, which activates a protective bubble around a user to prevent unwanted interactions, Technology Review has reported. No one can speak to or interact with a user who has activated the tool.
Also in December, a user of Horizon Venues (a part of the Horizon Worlds ecosystem) said she was virtually sexually assaulted while using the platform. The woman, Nina Jane Patel, co-founder and vice president of metaverse research for children’s metaverse platform Kabuni Ventures, posted her account on Medium.
“Within 60 seconds of entering the lobby, I was verbally and sexually harassed by three to four male avatars, with male voices,” Patel told Grid. “They virtually groped my avatar and took selfie photos within the virtual environment. When I realized what was happening and started to exit, they yelled, ‘Don’t pretend you didn’t love it’ and ‘go rub yourself off to the photo.’”
Patel said she fumbled with the controllers while trying to report and block them, but it happened so fast and was so unpleasant, she needed to exit the platform and took off her headset to end it – as the male avatars proceeded to yell profanity at her.
“We’re sorry to hear this happened. We want everyone in Horizon Venues to have a positive experience, easily find the safety tools that can help in a situation like this — and help us investigate and take action,” said Meta spokesman Joe Osborne. “Horizon Venues should be safe, and we are committed to building it that way. We will continue to make improvements as we learn more about how people interact in these spaces, especially when it comes to helping people report things easily and reliably.”
Meta did not respond to questions about what, if any, penalties it imposes on users who engage in virtual harassment or assault. But the company pointed Grid to information about how users could protect themselves, including using the Safe Zone tool, blocking specific users and having everyone in a virtual venue vote on whether to remove a user. After this story was published, Meta announced it is adding a personal boundary function that would be enabled by default, giving all avatars a 2-foot radius of personal space in the VR environment. Users are unable to choose to disable the function.
Right now, Horizon Worlds is a relatively small platform with only thousands of testers. Its parent Meta’s largest social platform, Facebook, has nearly 3 billion users. What happens when more of those users start to migrate into Horizon Worlds? The difficulty of preventing harassment and punishing those involved only grows as platforms scale. And Horizon Worlds is not the only metaverse platform that has faced allegations of virtual harassment or assault by users.
“I’m really concerned that you’re just going to get all the problems that you’ve got with social media but now amplified, because what we do know about everything that makes virtual reality really good is exactly what we need to be worried about,” said Mary Anne Franks, the president of the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, who has looked at inequality in VR and AR. “It makes people feel that they are experiencing something as opposed to observing something.”
That was true even when virtual reality technology was far clumsier. Franks points to a first-person account of virtual-world harassment written in 2016 by a person using the pseudonym Jordan Belamire. While playing the game QuiVr, Belamire said, another user — BigBro442 — groped her and then proceeded to chase her. Back then, VR was more rudimentary: The game’s avatars were genderless, with genders revealed only by a player’s voice. But both VR and avatars have become more realistic in the years since, and the issue of harassment continues.
Franks said there is a reluctance to admit that the problems of the real world can intrude upon the virtual one.
“When it’s good, we praise how realistic and immersive these experiences are, but when it’s something that relates to harassment or something of that nature, it tends to be dismissed,” she said. “It’s just not real. Why are you getting upset?”
Patel told Grid she was met with a plethora of opinions after her experience, including “don’t choose a female avatar,” “don’t be stupid, it wasn’t real” and “avatars don’t have lower bodies to assault” — along with “I’m truly sorry you had to experience this” and “this must stop.”
“Harassment in the metaverses is a serious issue that the industry needs to come together on,” she added. “We have to consider the implications of immersion in virtual environments..”
Misinformation thrives on audio and video
Then there’s misinformation, already a scourge of Facebook, Twitter and myriad other social media sites. Facebook posts linking to deceptive sites received 1.2 billion interactions in the fourth quarter of 2020 alone, according to the German Marshall Fund.
Identifying and countering misinformation — from anti-vaccine pseudoscience to foreign influence operations — is a tricky business, and one that’s now increasingly politicized. That’s hard enough with written language.
But it gets even more challenging when introducing live audio and video, which is essentially what virtual reality is. Most tools to counter misinformation are built to analyze text, not sounds.
The result has been a flowering of false claims on audio-based social media. Clubhouse rooms featured false claims about covid and pushed ivermectin, despite evidence showing the drug does not help covid patients. Twitter Spaces have played host to Taliban supporters and white nationalists pushing hate speech and extremism. And a 2020 survey by the Anti-Defamation League found that around half of people who experience harassment in online gaming do so via voice chats.
Experts who study disinformation say the problem is primed to become more complicated in any forthcoming metaverse.
“Meta has so royally messed up the social media universe with harassment and misinformation and polarization,” said Michelle Amazeen, director of the Communication Research Center at Boston University, whose work focuses on mediated persuasion and misinformation. “Why go someplace else to create a healthier environment rather than try and clean up the mess that’s already been made?”
She’s particularly concerned that the metaverse could unleash a new wave of influencers, who have proved to be primary vectors for misinformation about things like vaccines or climate change on existing social media sites.
In April 2020, for example, actor Woody Harrelson told his 2 million Instagram followers about the “negative effects of 5G,” connecting the wireless technology to coronavirus, while Kanye West told Forbes “they want to put chips inside of us” in reference to the coronavirus vaccine. Bollywood movie star Amitabh Bachchan, who has around 45 million followers on Twitter, tweeted that houseflies spread the coronavirus in March 2020, leading to a spike in searches for “housefly” in India, according to Google Trends.
Amazeen said such behavior could be even more dangerous in the metaverse, where an influencer’s followers would interact with them in three dimensions — making them more persuasive.
Shannon McGregor, a senior researcher with the Center for Information, Technology and Public Life at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, echoed those concerns.
“If we’re worried about the impact of this on our society or the thing that my research focuses most on, which is our democracy and making sure that it is healthy, it doesn’t seem like a metaverse is going to have any positive impact on that,” she said.
AltSpaceVR, a popular social and enterprise platform, and Decentraland, a decentralized VR platform, did not respond to questions about how they address concerns about misinformation and harassment. Meanwhile, a Meta spokesperson directed Grid to company blog posts from Meta and Oculus called “Building the Metaverse Responsibly” and “Keeping People Safe in VR and Beyond.”
“Harassment in digital spaces is nothing new, and it’s something we and others in the industry have been working to address for years. That work is ongoing,” the Oculus post says. “We want everyone to feel like they’re in control of their VR experience and to feel safe on our platform. Full stop.” The Meta post includes an announcement of a $50 million research fund to build responsible VR systems.
Being aware is the first step. But solving these issues at scale is a daunting challenge. And how these efforts function in practice, is, much like the larger metaverse itself, yet to be determined.
“I think this is just how the tech industry operates,” said Franks. “They keep blowing stuff up and then moving on to the next thing. It’s just this constant sense of ‘we never have to deal with the problems we have created, we’ll just keep moving on to new shinier objects and hope that people just like it so much that they stop criticizing us.’”
This story has been updated.