Last week, Meta (the umbrella company formerly known as Facebook) opened up access to its virtual-reality social media platform, Horizon Worlds. Early descriptions of the platform make it seem fun and wholesome, drawing comparisons to Minecraft. In Horizon Worlds, up to 20 avatars can get together at a time to explore, hang out, and build within the virtual space.
But not everything has been warm and fuzzy. 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.
Meta’s internal review of the incident found that the beta tester should have used a tool called “Safe Zone” that’s part of a suite of safety features built into Horizon Worlds. 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.
Vivek Sharma, the vice president of Horizon, called the groping incident “absolutely unfortunate,” telling The Verge, “That’s good feedback still for us because I want to make [the blocking feature] trivially easy and findable.”
It’s not the first time a user has been groped in VR—nor, unfortunately, will it be the last. But the incident shows that until companies work out how to protect participants, the metaverse can never be a safe place.
IEEE Spectrum: The metaverse in the book is a much wilder and more ambiguous place than anything that’s been suggested by Silicon Valley companies though.
Newitz: Yes, it’s a shiny tech wrapped in layers of garbage with monopoly-controlled access. What’s happening with a name like Meta has to do with how corporate elites misread Stephenson’s work. It’s easy to ignore the [negative] social issues. Someone like Mark Zuckerberg might think “I won’t let that happen, I’m a good guy!” Corporations buy into their own dogma and Silicon Valley is very bad at satire. They have little sense of irony. This explains some of the things that have gone wrong with Facebook.
IEEE Spectrum: This is the latest in a long line of attempts to bring the metaverse to life. There was a night club in Snow Crash called the Black Sun, and I suspect we’ve both lost count of how many attempted online incarnations of that club we’ve been to. Is there any reason to think that this time things will be different?
Newitz: The technology isn’t there, but we keep trying over and over because it could be fun and entertaining. There is something in the idea of that. There’s also the unpleasant potential to monitor people’s eyeballs while working, and Meta initially is implementing their version for work. But what actually happens in the metaverse will depend on whether companies give their users good tools to create their own spaces. Second Life (a virtual universe launched in the early 2000s that failed to break out into mass adoption) didn’t have great tools for creation. What people build in a space depends a lot on the parameters established for that space. Minecraft is a great example of a space that has good tools and parameters that were centered around building, with blocks with special properties and so on. So you get inventive things, like I once saw a fountain that perpetually spawns cats. But Second Life was geared toward commerce. What tools Meta offers, and how they gear the space, will tell you a lot about the future of their new platform.
IEEE Spectrum: The original metaverse was built around a geographical metaphor, with locations closest to a main street being the most valuable because they were the easiest to get to, but Stephenson has said this is where his metaverse turned out to be a bad prediction, because Internet addresses are pretty much all the same to access. So is the metaverse fundamentally flawed as a template?
Newitz: It’s funny because geographical metaphors are used for the Internet—think “IP address.” And these metaphors are also useful because there are different spaces online, that follow real world geographic and cultural boundaries, and these different spaces have different rules. A lot of spaces that grew out of Silicon Valley favor free speech maximalism, but that isn’t a priority everywhere, for example, Germany with its rules against displaying Nazi symbols. There is no one-size-fits-all Metaverse, because different nations and subcultures have different ideas about what public space should be, and what public discourse should look like. Companies need to take that into account as they build virtual worlds. Also, maybe they should get better at understanding satirical dystopian science fiction, so we end up with something that is less Black Mirror and more Star Trek.