Editorial: Some Facebook Musings on a Lazy Saturday Morning

Image by Firmbee from Pixabay

It’s been ten oh-so-glorious months since I decided to boycott Facebook and trade in my Oculus Rift for a Valve Index, and I continue to celebrate (nay, revel!) my near-complete emancipation from Facebook software and hardware. (I did have one person tell me he would no longer bother reading my blog after my decision… to which I responded Bye, Felicia!)

I have done a factory reset on my Oculus Quest (first edition), and it sits quietly in its box, waiting to be shipped to my sister-in-law in Alberta, where she plans to use it in her work with developmentally-challenged adults. I have completely deleted both my Facebook and Oculus accounts, and I asked Facebook to delete all my personal data. The Facebook app has never graced my relatively new iPhone. I even installed Privacy Badger and uBlock origin to block the setting and sending of tracking cookies to Facebook while I surf the Web! I think I have burned my bridges pretty effectively. (Now, I am not kidding myself, I am quite sure that Facebook has some sort of “shadow account” on me.)

In fact, the only remnant of Facebook left in my life the Oculus Rift I had purchased for my suspended research project, which sits in my office at the University of Manitoba Libraries, untouched as I continue to work from home during the pandemic. (I’m still figuring out what my new academic research project will be!) That VR headset has an Oculus account, and I have a little under two years to decide if I want to get a Facebook account for it when I am forced to do so. I can tell you one thing: if I do, it sure the hell won’t be in my name! I’m quite sure that many institutions of higher education are dealing with the thorny issues of being required to set up Facebook accounts for Oculus hardware. I’m also quite sure that Facebook/Oculus has lost some business because of that requirement!

At the same time, I am glad that the Oculus Quest 2 is selling well. “A rising tide lifts all boats,” as I like to say, and greater consumer uptake of VR will only mean good things for the entire VR/AR/XR ecosystem. People whose first taste of virtual reality is in an Oculus Quest will no doubt migrate to other hardware over time (many people are eagerly awaiting to see what Apple will do). I’ll tell you one thing: I trust Apple with my privacy way, waaay more than Facebook! I watch with amusement as the privacy battle between Facebook and Apple continues.

My experience with Facebook has informed the skepticism with which I look at all social media platforms, including the ones I use the most: Twitter and Reddit. I still derive value (and leads for potential blogposts!) from both, and I intend to continue to use them, and I still hang out on the new drop-in social audio apps Clubhouse and Spotify Greenroom (although I suspect that the Clubhouse boom has turned into a bust). However, I will never again use social media without wondering about data and privacy issues. Remember, if it’s “free”. YOU are the product!

I’ve also been watching Facebook take its first tentative steps into introducing advertising in Oculus apps. The BBC reported:

In what the social network described as an experiment, ads will begin to appear in a game called Blaston with other developers rolling out similar ads.

It said it would listen to feedback before launching virtual reality ads more widely.

It also revealed it is testing new ad formats “that are unique to VR”.

In 2014, shortly after Facebook bought Oculus, creator Palmer Luckey told concerned gamers: “We are not going to track you, flash ads at you, or do anything invasive.”

But in a blog on Oculus’s website, the firm said: “We’re exploring new ways for developers to generate revenue – this is a key part of ensuring we’re creating a self-sustaining platform that can support a variety of business models that unlock new types of content and audiences.”

Shortly after this was written, Blaston withdrew from the program after the negative press and review-bombing by unhappy players:

Barely a week has passed since Facebook started testing ads in Oculus apps and already the initiative has run into trouble. On Monday, one of the handful of developers involved in the initial ad experiment said it was pulling out of the test. Resolution Games tweeted that it had decided that in-app ads were not suitable for its multiplayer shooter game Blaston after “listening to player feedback.”

The developer had encouraged its user base to leave their thoughts on an ad feedback channel on its Discord server. As spotted by Upload VR, angry players had also review bombed Blaston on the Oculus Store and Steam shortly after its participation in the ad trial was announced.

Resolution Games’ decision marks a setback for Facebook’s burgeoning ad strategy for Oculus. After squeezing more ads into Instagram and its main platform, the company risked irking passionate gamers by bringing ads to VR. Unlike those other services, Oculus isn’t free: An Oculus Quest 2 headset alone starts from $299. While Blaston is also a paid game. 

I have been informed that, in fact, Facebook sells the Oculus Quest at a loss, hoping to earn back that money through software sales for the platform (which makes sense). In a discussion with Voices of VR podcaster Kent Bye (whom I admire greatly), I mentioned that I didn’t feel the need to subscribe to VRChat Plus, and he challenged me to consider the alternative: paid advertising in VRChat. I can tell you that the very thought made me shudder, and I changed my mind in a hurry, happily shelling out for a VRChat Plus subscription. And apparently, they are selling well:

Our community has shown their support by buying our optional subscription, VRChat Plus, which unlocks some enhancements and perks. VRC+ has been greatly successful, and has been instrumental in helping us expand via features like Regions. We plan on expanding VRC+ by enabling purchases on the Oculus platform, as well as allowing players to gift subscriptions to each other. We are so grateful to our community for their support!

I also find myself wondering about Facebook’s latest attempt at a social VR platform, Facebook Horizon, which many people expected to be launched by now, and which seems to be stuck in closed beta testing. I don’t regret not participating in Horizon by boycotting Facebook, not for one instant, but I do find the delay in launch perplexing. I have heard second-hand accounts that, while the in-world building tools are nice, there’s not a lot to do, and user moderation has been a problem area, despite Facebook’s surveillance attempts, which I mention in this blogpost. The longer it takes for Facebook to roll out Horizon, the more people wonder what’s really going on.

It just seems that Facebook can’t put a foot right these days. Even worse, the company itself doesn’t seem to know exactly what it is nowadays, as it lurches from market to market in an attempt to remain dominant. Shira Ovide of The New York Times wrote recently in an On Tech newsletter editorial:

This question might sound silly, but I’m serious: What is Facebook?

Did you know that Facebook has a dating service, online job listings, a version of Craigslist, a new collection of podcasts and live audio chat rooms, multiple copycats of Zoom, a section just for college students, two different spots for “TV” shows, a feature like TikTok (but bad) and software that office workers can use to communicate? On Tuesday, the company also outlined new developments in its efforts to get more businesses to sell merchandise directly inside Facebook and the company’s other apps.

If you knew that Facebook was doing all of this … gold star, I guess. You spend way too much time on the internet.

…The company’s constant tinkering raises the question: Is Facebook trying so hard because it’s excited about what’s next, or perhaps because, like its peers, it is no longer so adept at predicting and then leading digital revolutions?

(The entire On Tech column is well worth a read, by the way.)

Anyway, these are just some assorted musings about Facebook this lazy Saturday morning. As always, I’d love to hear your comments and perspectives! Feel free to join the burgeoning RyanSchultz.com Discord server, where well over 500 of us like-minded social VR/virtual world enthusiasts gather to discuss, debate, and argue about the ever-evolving metaverse and all the companies building it! Or just leave a comment on this blogpost, thanks!

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