Ian Hamilton wrote an article for UploadVR about Facebook Horizon, dated Oct. 1st, 2019, which finally confirmed my worst fear about Facebook’s new social VR platform: that you will indeed be required to link to your account on the Facebook social network in order to use it.
At Facebook’s Oculus Connect 6 VR developer’s conference I tried an early version of the company’s unified social networking space “Horizon” that’s coming in early 2020.
The intent in Horizon is to build a shared network of virtual spaces with games, physics and interactions not possible in the real world. If Horizon sounds like Rec Room, VRChat or AltspaceVR that is because it is like Rec Room, VRChat or AltspaceVR — except Horizon requires your Facebook account. The first thing Facebook showed me was how to block people who bother me. As memory serves, the button was available near my wrist and when I pressed it I saw some options for what do with the report that looked very Facebook-esque.
“You still will use your Oculus ID,” said Meaghan Fitzgerald, head of product marketing for AR/VR content at Facebook. “Your name in Horizon is your Oculus identity, but we do require a linked Facebook account and that lets us do some great things around both safety – making sure it’s backed by a real person – but also for the people who want to invite more of their social network from their Facebook world into their VR environment. [With Facebook integration] they have better tools to do that – they can share out to groups and communities. But it is a Facebook product and we want to take advantage of the social features that Facebook has built as we’re thinking this through.”
Facebook’s terms say “you cannot use Facebook if…you are under 13 years old.” Where other social services, like Rec Room, let you get online and playing with other people without even registering a real email address, Facebook is going to back its social service with Facebook’s policy which demands accounts operated by people who “use the same name that you use in everyday life” and are asked to “provide accurate information about yourself.”
So, as expected, at some point I am going to have provide Facebook Horizon with a my newly re-established (but still empty) Facebook social network account, in addition to my Oculus account, linking all the information that Facebook has on me together. While Facebook is certainly well within its rights to ask this, it does make me uneasy, especially given the privacy and data security scandals of the recent past on their social network (not least, the Cambridge Analytica fiasco where Facebook data was weaponized and used against us to, among other things, help Donald Trump get elected).
Facebook (the social network) makes billions of dollars every year, mostly from targeted digital advertisements based on the user data you provide: your photos, your messages, your likes and dislikes, etc. How all this marketing data will carry over into Facebook Horizon, and how it will be used, is a big question. At this point, we don’t know the details.
But in order to do this marketing and reap its anticipated profits from this new social VR platform, Facebook has to know who you are. And this is not going to sit right with earlier generations of virtual world users, who are used to hiding behind a different avatar name, and an identity and appearance that are created from scratch, and which may have absolutely nothing in common with the person behind the keyboard.
These issues are certainly not new, and they are not limited to social VR platforms and virtual worlds. For example, there was a great deal of controversy over the fact that Google expected users to register for its then-new Google+ social network using their real-life first and last names. There was a great deal of push-back from many Google+ users about the need for people to be anonymous or to use handles or pseudonyms. One example given where such anonymity would be necessary is someone who is fleeing a domestic abuse situation, and who wishes to avoid becoming the target of stalking. This issue was never really satisfactorily laid to rest before Google+ finally shuttered its doors in its failed bid to become the next Facebook.
And, of course, Facebook has long discouraged users of its social network from using pseudonyms, anonymous names, or avatar names. There have been many stories of people who set up Facebook accounts under their Second Life avatar names, only to find them later disabled and removed by Facebook. Wagner James Au of the blog New World Notes wrote back in 2011:
Facebook is reportedly deleting numerous profiles of Second Life avatars on the social network. Among them is Angie Mornington, a well-known personality in SL, who recently received an email from The Facebook Platform Team, informing her that “Your personal account was recently disabled by Facebook.” The message included a link, Ms. Mornington told me, and after clicking it, “I wound up at a page that said that in order to restore my account, I have to scan and upload a government ID showing my real name and photo, with everything else blacked out (social security number, address, etc.) I refuse to do that.”
At the moment, however, there doesn’t seem to be a thorough or systematic purging of Second Life avatars — at least not yet. Over the weekend, I lost about a hundred friends on my own Facebook network, presumably avatars, but I still have hundreds of Facebook friends who are avatars. In any case, it does appear to be a substantial purge, and comes two years after a Facebook rep told me that while the social network requires accounts based on real names and/or identities, “[t]he vast majority of fake accounts on which we take action have been reported to us by other users.” So it’s possible that any purge is actually being driven by a rash of users filing reports against avatar-based accounts. Or perhaps Facebook is becoming more stringent about its policies in the run-up to their IPO.
Not only does Facebook expect you to present as your real-world self in Facebook Horizon (your real name, your personal details, your social contacts, etc.), it would appear that the company wishes to eventually move towards a point where you would even look like your real-world self as much as possible, too, although that technology is still many, many years away from implementation. Ian Hamilton writes:
It is worth noting that while Horizon features expressive cartoon-like avatars for launch, Facebook teams are hard at work on ultra-realistic human representations they call “codec avatars” that could ultimately be tied to your real world identity in the same way Horizon will be. Codec avatars are still years away and they’ll likely require a new generation of VR headsets to work, but the same way your iPhone or Android phone authenticates its operator using biometric signals, future VR headsets may authenticate the user in hopes of establishing trust and security online.
In short, Facebook does not seem to want you to be anybody but your real-life, easily-identifiable, easy-to-market-to self on Facebook Horizon.
What this means is that there is still a significant market opportunity for any social VR platform or virtual world which allows and even encourages you to make your own avatar, completely constructed from the fabric of your own imagination and creativity (including a customized, anonymous name and detailed backstory to match, if you wish to engage in roleplay). A virtual self-representation that has absolutely no links to the real-life you. People want that. People need that escape from reality.
It will be very interesting to see how Facebook Horizon deals with these kinds of challenges when they launch early next year. More and more, it sounds as if Facebook Horizon is going to be a super-hyped-up version of Facebook Spaces where avatars can finally move around freely. If that’s all it will be—yet another opportunity for Facebook to strip-mine our user data and social networks for profit—then I for one will be especially disappointed.
UPDATE Oct. 6th: We’re talking about VRChat vis-à-vis Facebook Horizon over on the RyanSchultz.com Discord server, and I said the following to add to that particular discussion:
Facebook still has the potential to dominate the social VR marketplace and crush competitors. The fact that they are insistent on you linking your account on the Facebook social network to your avatar in Facebook Horizon means that they will NOT attract users who wish to have an avatar completely separate from their real life, which means that it is a market opportunity for other platforms like VRChat to occupy. I don’t think that many people in VRChat will want to give up their custom avatars for a boring, generic human avatar in Facebook Horizon.
And frankly, Facebook is not going after that market. Their intended market is the 2 billion+ people who already are on Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, to entice them into social VR. And you can bet that Facebook will advertise the hell of out Horizon. It’s all you’re going to hear about in 2020. And for the average, non-geeky end consumer, Facebook Horizon WILL be their first experience with social VR.