A New Feature-Length Investigative Documentary by BrandonFM Looks at a Very Dark and Disturbing Side of VRChat

Every so often, something hits you like a sucker punch to the gut. This is one of those times.

Somebody alerted me to this brand new, investigative-documentary-style video on YouTube, and I started watching it this evening. Even before I had reached the halfway point of the video, I knew I had to stop watching it, and write this blogpost.

While it is titled The Dark Side of Virtual Reality, this one-hour-48-minute video is entirely about a single popular social VR platform, VRChat. The creator is a man by the name of BrandonFM (his channel only has 3 videos so far; after I finish watching this, I will certainly be watching his two earlier videos, which appear to be on similar topics to this new one).

WARNING: This YouTube video covers some very disturbing topics! Consider yourself forewarned!

TRIGGER WARNING: This video discusses sexual content involving minors, and will likely be upsetting to some viewers.

Brandon’s video talks about the hidden adult content in VRChat, which I have written about before here (ironically, this safe-for-work post by far the most popular blogpost on the RyanSchultz.com blog). And I’ve even written fairly recently about the Nevermet app, which is briefly mentioned in this video.*

This is a not-safe-for-work side of VRChat which I had suspected to exist, based on that previous blogpost I wrote about adult content in VRChat, but I had never actually set (virtual) foot in. But I never knew about some of the darkest depths uncovered here by Brandon—particularly where it involves minors. (He uses the word “degenerate” a lot in this video, and frankly, it’s the appropriate word.)

In 2007, Linden Lab (the makers of Second Life) underwent a public relations disaster when this sort of behaviour was discovered happening on its platform (item #4 on my list of scandals and controversies in SL):

The virtual pedophilia uncovered by two different news reporters in Second Life was a public relations disaster of the highest order for Linden Lab…Linden Lab responded to the crisis by creating an official Ageplay Policy, where people involved in ageplay and virtual pedophilia activities were banned from the platform.

Well, it would appear that a similar scandal may soon befall VRChat, once the major news media latch onto this story (and believe me, they will!). And, once again, a metaverse platform is going to be in the white-hot glare of the media spotlight, and have to scramble to address a public relations disaster. It’s happened before, and it will happen again.

So, I’m just going to post this, then finish watching this video, then I will add some more of my thoughts (I’m sure I will have some!).

UPDATE 9:06 p.m.: O.K., I have not yet finished watching the entire video, but holy shit. I’m really impressed with the work that BrandonFM and his team did in researching and reporting on these stories, as well as the overall editing of the documentary.

What I now want to know is: What has VRChat done in response to this video? Do they even know about it? Brandon posted it on May 6th, 2022, but it only has a relatively paltry 88,500 views so far (possibly because it does not have “VRChat” in the title?).

Also, this video talks about things such as slave auctions, something which (unfortunately) still can be found among the adult (18+) community in Second Life, despite calls from some people to forbid any slavery completely on the platform (pertinent thread from the SL Community Forums). In fact, there are numerous SL sims devoted to Gorean roleplay (based on the “of Gor” series of science fiction novels written by philosophy professor John Lange, writing as John Norman), in which slavery is commonplace.

What really struck me, in fact, is that VRChat is struggling with many of the same sorts of problems that Second Life has been struggling with throughout its own 18-year history.

O.K., back to the video…

UPDATE 9:48 p.m.: I finally finished the video, and I immediately became one of BrandonFM’s patrons on Patreon (here’s his Patreon page if you are similarly inclined). Seriously, this documentary was a trip, and this 58-year-old blogger learned a lot of things about VRChat that I did not know before (like the gangs of crashers, and the zoophiliac “hypnotherapist”, and the drug dealing, and the doxxing). The documentary is like a fever dream. My head is kind of spinning with it all.

Brandon did a masterful job of video editing (although the voice distortion used for some avatars interviewed made it a bit difficult to understand what they were saying).

My initial response after watching Brandon’s video is that, once this information becomes more widely known, VRChat is going to receive some serious pushback from parents and officials for its current Teen (age 13+) rating. It’s going to be interesting to see how much traction Brandon’s documentary will achieve, and what kind of impact it will have on the platform overall (hopefully, positive).

I also need to let everything percolate for a little while, so I am not going to delete any blogposts I have written in the past about adult content in VRChat, or Nevermet. I need to think things through, and not act simply as a knee-jerk reaction, despite how appalled I am at some of things that Brandon has uncovered. And I definitely need to watch his earlier videos!


* I did explicitly warn the people behind the Nevermet app that they needed to pay attention to the serious problem of potentially underage users setting up profiles. Now that I am watching Brandon’s documentary, which mentions Nevermet in passing, I have a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. I’m going to finish watching this video, then I might have to make some decisions about what to do about my review of Nevermet, in light of the information Brandon has reported.

Virtual Cultures in Pandemic Times: A New, Feature-Length Documentary by Draxtor Despres Looks at Second Life and Animal Crossing Users During the Coronavirus Pandemic

HOUSEKEEPING NOTE: The RyanSchultz.com blog will be on an indefinite hiatus, as I am working on a brand new project: writing up a proposal for a VR lab for my university library system! More details here. I’ll be back as soon as I can, folks!

Image source: the official website for the documentary

The full-length documentary by Bernhard Drax (a.k.a. Draxtor Despres in Second Life), titled Virtual Cultures in Pandemic Times, has now been released on YouTube, where you can watch it for free! (I first wrote about the film here.)

It’s 1 hour and 24 minutes long, so go get yourself some popcorn, and settle in!

According to the official website for the film:

Virtual Cultures in Pandemic Times is a new feature length documentary by media maker Draxtor.

Since March 2020, Draxtor has been following researchers Tom Boellstorff, Evan Conaway, Chandra Middleton and Sandy Wenger (based in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine) around Animal Crossing and Second Life to find out how COVID-19 is reshaping online interaction.

In the 85 minute film, protagonists from all over the world speak openly about their anxieties and everyday challenges during this global crises and about what virtual worlds and social games mean to them in the context of a pandemic.

Mixed reality interviews and group discussions provide the basis for a sprawling narrative: a mosaic of impressions, shared by people from all walks of life, some well known figures from science, arts and culture, some just regular folks (like the research team itself), trying to make sense of a new age dominated by uncertainty and physical isolation.

Enjoy!

P.S. If you watch the documentary, you can see my main SL avatar, Vanity Fair, sitting in the audience at the Virtual Ability 10th Annual Mental Health Symposium: Mental Health in Trying Times virtual conference, held on April 16th, 2021 (at which I also was a presenter on the topic of acedia). At exactly the 25:10 mark in Virtual Cultures in Pandemic Times, you can see Vanity, busily knitting away… 😉 I’m tickled pink that I made a (brief) cameo in Drax’s documentary!

Screen capture of Vanity Fair (with her animated knitting needles!) sitting in the audience at the Virtual Ability Annual Mental Health Symposium (taken from Drax’s documentary)

P.P.S. Starting at the 1:17:42 mark of Drax’s documentary, in the discussion of social media/networks versus virtual worlds, Drax has an image of my popular list of metaverse platforms appearing on the screen of a virtual television set in Second Life! He even scrolls down the listing! My blog got a cameo!!!

My list of metaverse platforms gets a cameo in Drax’s documentary!

Thanks for the cameos, Drax! 😉

Virtual Cultures in Pandemic Times: A New Feature-Length Documentary by Draxtor Despres, Premiering on YouTube and in Second Life on April 2nd, 2022

Second Life filmmaker Bernhard Drax (better known by his Second Life name, Draxtor Despres) will be premiering a new, feature-length documentary on April 2nd, 2022, titled Virtual Cultures in Pandemic Times. I have written about Drax many times before on this blog, notably when he released his previous feature-length documentary, Our Digital Selves: My Avatar Is Me. Drax is a truly indefatigable chronicler of Second Life, who often creates promotional short films (a.k.a. machinima) about various aspects of Second Life for Linden Lab. He is also an insatiable reader, who hosts the popular weekly Second Life Book Club.

According to the official website for the film:

Virtual Cultures in Pandemic Times is a new feature length documentary by media maker Draxtor.

Since March 2020, Draxtor has been following researchers Tom Boellstorff, Evan Conaway, Chandra Middleton and Sandy Wenger (based in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine) around Animal Crossing and Second Life to find out how COVID-19 is reshaping online interaction.

In the 85 minute film, protagonists from all over the world speak openly about their anxieties and everyday challenges during this global crises and about what virtual worlds and social games mean to them in the context of a pandemic.

Mixed reality interviews and group discussions provide the basis for a sprawling narrative: a mosaic of impressions, shared by people from all walks of life, some well known figures from science, arts and culture, some just regular folks (like the research team itself), trying to make sense of a new age dominated by uncertainty and physical isolation.

The online premiere of Virtual Cultures in Pandemic Times will be happening on YouTube and in the virtual world of Second Life, at 1:00 p.m. Pacific Time/SL Time on April 2nd, 2022.

For more information on the project, and to register for the premiere, please refer to the official website for the film. You can also search Twitter for the hashtag #VCinPandemicTimes for the latest tweets about the film and the people it profiles. You can also check out Drax’s voluminous output over on his YouTube channel (including a playlist of teaser clips from Virtual Cultures in Pandemic Times!).

I Am Addicted to Social Media

One of the ways I try to get people to understand just how wrong feeds from places like Facebook are is to think about Wikipedia. When you go to a page, you’re seeing the same thing as other people. So it’s one of the few things online that we at least hold in common.

Now just imagine for a second that Wikipedia said, “We’re gonna give each person a different customized definition, and we’re gonna be paid by people for that.” So, Wikipedia would be spying on you. Wikipedia would calculate, “What’s the thing I can do to get this person to change a little bit on behalf of some commercial interest?” Right? And then it would change the entry.

Can you imagine that? Well, you should be able to, because that’s exactly what’s happening on Facebook. It’s exactly what’s happening in your YouTube feed.

—Jaron Lanier, from the documentary The Social Dilemma

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

This is not the blogpost I originally started writing.

The first draft of my blogpost is quoted below:

As I lie on the sofa in my darkened apartment, listening to an LGBTQ “Queeraoke” room in Clubhouse (and wondering if I have the audacity to inflict my pitchy tenor voice on the assembly), it occurs to me that my relationship with social media has evolved significantly since I started this blog, a little over four years ago.

I don’t kid myself; my divorce from Facebook (not so much a single event as a series of steps), led not to a reduction in my use of social media, but an overall increase, something about which I have strong mixed feelings about. (It would appear that I am not alone in this: I have noticed a significant uptick in recent views of a blogpost I wrote about Jaron Lanier’s 10 reasons to quit social media, according to my WordPress blog statistics.)

Spending so much of my time in social isolation since the pandemic started 20 months ago, I find myself spending varying amounts of time every day on five wildly disparate social media platforms: Twitter, YouTube, Reddit, Discord, and (the newcomer) Clubhouse. I tell myself that it helps me stay connected to other people, but I also

And then, like so many other blogposts I write, I set it aside, literally mid-sentence, to complete on another day, when the muse struck.

Well, today is another day.

And it is a day that I started watching a one-and-a-half hour documentary on Netflix, which is also available to watch for free on YouTube: The Social Dilemma. And, as it happens, Jaron Lanier also appears in this particular documentary—along with two dozen other experts, many of them executives who formerly held high-ranking positions at social media companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.

I full well realize the irony in asking you to watch a YouTube video on social media addiction (given the platform’s at-times-scarily accurate recommendation engine, algorithmically designed to keep you viewing long past your bedtime), but I would urge you to set aside 93 minutes and 42 seconds of your time, and watch this documentary. It is eye-opening, it is disturbing, and it is a wake-up call.

One shocking thing I learned from this documentary is that even the people who designed, created, and tweaked the algorithms that glue us to our cellphones, are addicted to social media and its attendant ills (for example, a more divisive society and increasingly polarized politics).

We are participating in an experiment that is slowly but surely rewiring our brains in ways that we are only now starting to comprehend. Particularly disturbing is the impact that social media algorithms are having on children and teenagers, something once again brought to light by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen last week in her testimony to the U.S. Senate.

According to the video description on YouTube, The Social Dilemma was only supposed to be on YouTube until September 30th, 2021, but it’s still up as of today. I don’t know how long it will be available on YouTube, so if you don’t subscribe to Netflix, please don’t delay in watching this.

As I said up top, while I might be proud of my emancipation from Facebook, I have landed up spending more time—a lot more time—on other social media, notably Twitter, YouTube, Reddit, Clubhouse, and Discord. The pandemic (and its lockdowns and social distancing requirements) have only exacerbated the problem over the past 20 months. And I suspect that I am not alone in this.

I might be free of Facebook (which I consider the most egregious culprit), but I am still addicted to social media.

Are you?

Here’s a resource to help you learn more: The Center for Humane Technology.