Facebook wants to rule the metaverse space. We can’t let this happen
Amid the Facebook newspaper scandals, Facebook renamed the company to Meta. The new name was designed to reflect a focus beyond the social networking platform Facebook and into the metaverse – extending the internet into three-dimensional virtual reality (VR) spaces.
However, given Facebook’s handling – or mismanagement – of their current social responsibilities, we need to be careful about how much control a single company should have over the potential metaverse. We have the opportunity to be proactive about building social worlds within VR rather than the reactive state we find ourselves in regarding current Meta social products.
As an academic exploring social interactions in VR spaces, I’m concerned about Facebook’s control over the metaverse. These concerns guided my decisions when I taught courses in virtual reality classrooms at the VARC lab at DePaul University and when I established a virtual reality research program at the Institute for Communication, Culture, Information and Technology from the University of Toronto Mississauga.
We should all be concerned about how Facebook could and will use the data collected in the Metaverse.
When Facebook was first developed, it was part of a collection of social media websites considered a frivolous part of social life. Initially, the main function of the site seemed to be that you could track what your college roommate was having for lunch. However, over time the site evolved into a place where people could maintain broad bands of social connections, engage in community groups, access social support, and share political information (and misinformation). with a large networked audience.
Facebook has capitalized on a key component of humanity: the social interactions that make up the fabric of our daily lives. Yet, as the site evolved, it became clear that those in a position to consider how this could fundamentally change the way our society engages with each other were not taking it seriously, the treated it as a passing fad and used it for citizen surveillance. There has been a failure in the management and regulation of the underlying business model of social media sites.
We’re about to make the same mistakes again with virtual reality. The main application of virtual reality today is games, which are often not taken seriously by policymakers except as a scapegoat for violent behavior. The industry and its consumers can sometimes seem like a playground for dilettantes.
The future promised by industry leaders can sometimes seem like nothing more than snake oil. Virtual reality represents a way to interact and communicate across geographic locations, in a more embodied way. The hardware and software problems of virtual reality are continually being solved by sophisticated engineering solutions. Virtual reality could be the next big step in social interaction. Facebook certainly thinks so.
In Facebook’s vision of the metaverse, he lists a holistic system: there’s Horizon Home for social interactions, Quest for Business as a replacement for phone and video conferencing. Gyms are becoming fitness apps, entertainment is provided through games, and there is immersive educational content. All of this is accessible to users through the Oculus headset.
I have been hesitant to order Oculus products that require a Facebook account because I have serious concerns about forcing my students to sign their data. I have ethical concerns about losing control of data when using virtual reality in research.
And while the Oculus headset no longer requires a Facebook account, Facebook still seems to be attached to a one-user / headset model.
Linking Oculus to a Facebook account allows Facebook to view the interaction that occurs in a headset as the data of a single user. User data, including who the users interact with socially, what they discuss at work, their fitness and entertainment choices, their level of education, etc. The metaverse provides an infrastructure for content to collect user data and deliver personalized audiences to marketers.
Policymakers and regulators sat idly by as Facebook became a major platform for societal interaction and political discourse. They didn’t put antitrust protections in place because Facebook acquired additional social data feeds by buying Instagram and WhatsApp. Now the platform is deeply connected with the social life of many people and it will be difficult to disentangle the company from Facebook.
With virtual reality, we still have these opportunities. In order for the Metaverse to be truly a part of everyday life, it will need to be accessible without Facebook, or Meta, as a mediator.
Industry associations could work on standards to make programming independent of headsets. Antitrust regulators can consider the implications of a company controlling so much data flow in so many contexts. Social and computer scientists can be consulted to examine how the design of virtual worlds can affect social relationships and future social movements.
Virtual reality can and should be designed for free and easy movement through virtual spaces, rather than for a single company controlling access.
This article by Bree McEwan, Associate Professor, Institute of Communication, Culture, Information, and Technology, University of Toronto, is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.