I Am This Week’s Guest on The Drax Files Radio Hour, Talking About Douglas Rushkoff’s Article and Social VR

On Saturday I was a guest of Bernhard Drax (a.k.a. Draxtor Despres in Second Life and Sansar) on his long-running weekly podcast, The Drax Files Radio Hour.

We talk about Douglas Rushkoff’s provocative article, Most VR is Total Bullshit. But Drax and I also discussed many other topics in social VR, including mentions of Sansar, High Fidelity, AltspaceVR, VRChat, Rec Room, Decentraland, and the forthcoming Facebook Horizon. We also talk a fair bit about Facebook in general—and Drax takes me to task for rejoining the Facebook social network!

Here’s a link to the podcast. It’s about an hour long. Enjoy!

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Editorial: Why Second Life Is the Perfect Model of a Mature, Fully Evolved Virtual World for Newer Social VR Platforms to Emulate

You might have noticed that recently, even with all the different social VR platforms and virtual worlds I could choose from, I am still visiting—and blogging about—Second Life a lot lately.

There’s a good reason for that. I still love Second Life, and I still find lots to bring me back, time and again. For all the bells and whistles of the newer social VR platforms, I find myself coming back to SL for more.

Some people speculate that the evolving metaverse is going to look a lot like popular games like Fortnite. But I think that successful social VR/AR/XR platforms of the future are going to resemble Second Life.

In fact, I am going to make the argument that Second Life, at sixteen years old, is the perfect model of a mature, fully-evolved virtual world. Whether through design, luck, or accident (and really, it’s a combination of all three), founding CEO Philip Rosedale and his team at Linden Lab created something that hundreds of thousands of users still use regularly, despite Second Life routinely being ignored or derided by the mainstream media.

In fact, just a couple of days ago, Philip tweeted:

He said:

Looking right now at the live Steam concurrency stats, if Second Life were listed there it would be in the top 10 games, between Rocket League and TF2. And we’ve been at that concurrency level for more than 10 years.

Much credit lies both with Philip Rosedale for his original, pioneering vision of what a virtual world could be (and some very smart early decisions, such as allowing people to create and sell their own content to other users). Much credit must also go to the current CEO of Linden Lab, Ebbe Altberg, who has capably and competently led his team through many changes in recent years, building on Philip’s foundation. (There were a few CEOs in between, too, but we don’t talk about those. 😉 )

We can take a look at where Second Life is now, today, for a glimpse at the future of social VR/AR/XR platforms and virtual worlds.

What lessons can we take from SL? I can list four off the top of my head.

First, having a well functioning in-world economy is CRITICAL. Once people realized that they could actually make money in Second Life by creating and selling content to other users, SL took off like a rocket. And you can bet that the newer platforms like Sansar, High Fidelity, Sinespace, Decentraland, and Somnium Space have all been busily taking notes based on that early success. Even VRChat, which lacks an in-world economy, effectively proves this point, by having a booming off-world economy centered around the making and selling of custom avatars. The lesson here is simple: either build a marketplace and an economy into your virtual world, or your users will build one around it anyway, in spite of you!

We can expect that newer social VR/AR/XR platforms will develop highly detailed working economies and marketplaces for user-generated content (including comprehensive item permissions systems), whether or not they embrace blockchain and cryptocurrencies. Second Life proved that this is a key, vital ingredient to virtual world success.

Second, it’s ALL ABOUT THE PEOPLE. One of the reasons that Second Life has had such extraordinary longevity and success is that people have made an investment in the communities that they belong to. Whatever you are—a Gorean, medieval, steampunk, or science fiction roleplayer; a furry, a tiny, a Na’vi or a Bloodlines vampire—you have likely already found your tribe in Second Life! And that community is what brings people back, time and time again.

Also, Second Life has proven that people will spend a significant amount of time and money on customizing their avatars to their liking. There’s a whole industry built up around avatar customization, as even a brief glance at the SL Marketplace, with its hundreds of thousands of items for sale, will attest.

One of the reasons that OpenSim-based virtual worlds have struggled so much (with so many grids closing unexpectedly, like the rather sad InWorldz saga) is that they attract so few people compared to Second Life. You don’t make too many return visits to a grid when you can’t find anybody else to interact with. And this is where the network effect comes in: the more people who use a platform, the more people it draws in, and the more valuable that network becomes. Often (but not always), these successful growing networks were earlier entrants into a particular marketplace, like Second Life was.

And obviously, Facebook hopes that they can leverage their massive existing social network to give their upcoming social VR platform Horizon an advantage over competitors. If Facebook can get even a tiny percentage of their Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp users to move to Facebook Horizon and use it regularly, they will be more successful than any other social VR platform to date (even VRChat). Facebook has the resources to dominate markets and crush competitors, and they will not hesitate to use every tool and tactic at their disposal. However, as I have said before, innovative social VR platforms will still be able to survive, if they can offer something that Facebook Horizon cannot.

Third: The early adopters of the various social VR/virtual worlds are the best ambassadors and promoters of the platforms. Engaged, raving fans are a virtual world’s best and most effective advertisement! Savvy metaverse companies court these early adopters with varying levels of success.

And you alienate those raving fans at your peril! High Fidelity is unfortunately learning this lesson the hard way. The current level of ill-will surrounding the project, spread by former users who are highly critical of the various mistakes and failings of the company, is an additional hurdle that the company will have to surmount in order to succeed.

Fourth, don’t be too quick to judge or dismiss a platform based on early impressions! I love to share the following video with people who just assumed that Second Life started off as an instant success. It dates from 2001, two years before SL opened to the public, and before it was even called Second Life (back then, it was called Linden World):

It took Philip Rosedale and his team at Linden Lab years and years and YEARS of hard work to get to the point where it finally took off (around 2006-2007).

And likewise, don’t be too quick to dismiss newer platforms that still might be a bit rough around the edges. (And yes, I am as guilty of this as the next person.) Some platforms might not look like much right now, but they will likely also take several years of concerted effort (by the companies behind them and their early users), before they reach a point where they become successful, profitable products.

I have noticed in covering the social VR/virtual world marketplace on my blog that here is such intense pressure on metaverse-building companies to become “the next Second Life”. Platforms are often judged harshly if they do not immediately get high concurrent users figures right out of the starting gate. That is completely unrealistic. The smarter companies are playing the long game here: building a quality social VR/virtual world slowly and methodically over time, and slowly but steadily attracting an audience. That’s what happened with Second Life!

A perfect example of this strategy at work is NeosVR, which is doing some insanely creative things, like this most recent example: an actual working portal gun! I mean, just how freaking cool is that?

NeosVR is still not on a lot of people’s radar yet, but they are attracting more and more users who are very impressed by what they can achieve on this platform. In many cases, these are features that other social VR platforms are not even close to matching! That’s why I believe that NeosVR will have a bright future. As Ralph Waldo Emerson apparently said, build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door.

So these are just a few thoughts. Examine Second Life carefully, and you too will gain valuable clues into what the mature, fully-evolved social VR/AR/XR platforms of the future will look like. You can count on it!

Picture by Yorkie

UPDATED! Editorial: Facebook Horizon Will Require an Account on the Facebook Social Network

You might look like a cartoon, but Facebook still wants
you to back that up with your real-life name and details.

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.

Titled OC6: Facebook Horizon’s Social Future Built Around Real Identity And Blocking People, Ian writes:

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.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

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.

UPDATED! Forbes Writer Takes a Hatchet to Facebook Horizon in a Hilariously Badly-Written Article: “Facebook, the drug we snort off the buttocks of a willing and paid for social media pit of despair…”

As could be predicted, there have been oceans of fawning press coverage of Facebook Horizon, since it was announced two days ago at OC6. So I was surprised to find a hilariously bad, savage swipe at the yet-to-be-launched social VR platform, and coming from Forbes business magazine, no less.

In an article titled Facebook’s Horizon VR Promises A New Kind Of Drug For Our Exhausted Reality, consumer tech writer Curtis Silver swandives right into the deep end of the hyperbole pool:

Facebook, the drug we snort off the buttocks of a willing and paid for social media pit of despair, has opened us up to the psychological horror of the world around us. If that’s not enough, now Facebook wants to drag us into VR with its Horizon VR project.

Quick, somebody call the Mixed Metaphor Police! I’ve heard Facebook called a lot of nasty things in my time, but comparing it to hooker off whose butt you snort cocaine is a new one! Except it’s not a hooker’s ass, it’s a pit of despair, get it? (But wouldn’t the cocaine just fall into the pit?)

But wait, there’s more!

If you’ve forgotten, amid all the political wrangling and constant stream of lukewarm fake news into your eyes, Facebook owns Oculus VR, a VR system generally focusing on immersive games and experiences. Well, now Facebook wants to really get involved, introducing Horizon VR during its Facebook’s Oculus Connect 6 developer conference, which took place at the same time we were all watching Amazon introduce a new world of surveillance smart home tech.

Horizon VR, upon first glance, appears to be some sort of leg-less Nintendo Mii meets Second Life apparatus, focusing on creating environments and interactions that appear happy and contained, but will most likely be terrible and insane. It’s intended for use on the Oculus Quest headset, which doesn’t have the computing power of PC-connected headsets. Therefore, Horizon VR is something more akin to the graphical output of a Nickelodeon cartoon rather than a reality-based world.

“Lukewarm fake news into your eyes”?!?? Oh, honey, no. Lukewarm is associated with touch, not sight. Somebody needs to get this writer a proper thesaurus. (And maybe some English lessons.)

Curtis also gets quite a few technical details wrong in this write-up. First, the social VR platform is called Facebook Horizon, not “Horizon VR”, as he keeps calling it (even in the title!). And Horizon is not just for the wireless Oculus Quest headset; it is also intended for the PC-connected Oculus Rift headset. And one of the many OC6 announcements was that soon you will be able to run Oculus Rift games on your Quest using a cable connected to your computer. In other words, there’s really nothing stopping Facebook (or anybody else, for that matter) from making more realistic-looking experiences and avatars. The limit is truly your own imagination.

Anyway, let’s proceed…the writer was comparing Facebook Horizon to a Nickelodeon cartoon…

To Facebook’s credit, that’s a smart move. Reality is certainly something we need less of. Horizon VR offers an escape from the twisted dysfunction of reality, on the surface at least. In screenshots and talking points. [sic] We all know what is going to go down in a virtual world captained by Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg. Horizon VR might appear to be a cartoonish world of fun interactions and avatars without legs, but users will surely find a way to quickly create a nightmare world that moderators will be unable to manage.

Meanwhile in the real world, the Department of Justice has joined the FTC in an antitrust investigation of Facebook. A new study from the University of Oxford has revealed that (duh) Facebook is the most common platform for spreading disinformation at a government and political level. And in response to anti-bullying and mental health groups, Facebook will begin testing hiding likes to make users feel better. Facebook is an actual hellscape.

You really want to experience that in VR? As fellow Forbes contributer [sic] Paul Armstrong puts it, “As more and more scandals hit Facebook thanks to lax privacy policies of yesteryear (they promise), this bold vision [of Horizon VR] is all well and good but it’s built on the back of something ugly and hence, it’s destined to be tainted from conception.”

Facebook is a drug. Quit Facebook. Seriously. Before it ruins you. The solution to the problems Facebook has deftly unloaded upon the populace and your personal mental health isn’t to begin ingesting your social media drug in the virtual realm, the solution here is to delete Facebook from your phone, wake up and soberly face the real world once again. Only then can you find a viable, real-world escape from the real world. Like bowling, or mini-golf.

Sweet minty Jesus. I am most certainly not a fan of the Facebook social network, in fact I think it has caused some real and serious problems in society. But what story editor okayed this snarky, badly-argued, poorly-composed, half-assed hatchet job?? I mean, it’s one thing to write a well-written, well-reasoned, technically accurate critique of a product. But this mess is none of those things.

To cite just one example, what does hiding likes on a social network have to do with anything?

The writer can’t even get the name of the product straight, let alone the technical details. And there’s a sentence fragment just kind of hanging there in mid-article: “In screenshots and talking points.” And it’s spelled contributor, dear. There’s this wonderful new invention called spellcheck, you should really look into it sometime.

But the biggest problem that I have with this story is it just rather lazily assumes that Facebook Horizon is simply going to be some hellish VR version of the Facebook social network. A social network and a social VR platform are two very different things, used by different types of people for completely different purposes. We won’t know what Facebook Horizon is like until the closed beta test early next year, but we can assume that the company has learned at least a few things about what does and doesn’t work with Facebook Spaces, Oculus Home, and Oculus Rooms. (At least, let’s hope so!)

Is there a chance Facebook Horizon will be a terrible product? Absolutely. But I think it’s just a wee bit early to deem the new social network akin to Dante’s Ninth Circle of Hell. And Facebook has already announced that they will be deploying a team of human greeters and guides in an effort to model good behaviour on the platform and counteract griefers.

My God, I can’t believe I’m actually standing up for Facebook! (I must have a fever or something.)

But this article is so God-awful I just couldn’t let it go without comment. Forbes, you can do better than this sloppy, slipshod journalism.

UPDATE 6:39 p.m.: One of my Twitter followers, named Bird, shared this video with me:

And another Twitter follower, James Baicoianu, explains:

In other words, the Forbes website does many of the same evil things of which they accuse Facebook! A perfect case of the pot calling the kettle black.