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!

A Slippery Slope? Sony Files Patent for Shadow Banning Misbehaving Social VR Users

Shadow banning: the practice of blocking or partially blocking a user or their content from an online community so that it will not be readily apparent to the user that they have been banned.

—Source: Wikipedia

Much has already been written about the behaviour monitoring system in the upcoming Facebook Horizon social VR platform, used to prevent inappropriate behaviour, such as this RoadtoVR article from last August:

First, all the users in Horizon are involuntarily recording each other. The last few minutes of everything that users see and hear is recorded on a rolling basis. Facebook says this recording is stored on the headset itself, unless one user reports another, at which point the recording may be sent to Facebook to check for rule violations. The company says that the recording will be deleted once the report is concluded.

Second, anyone you interact with can invite an invisible observer from Facebook to come surveil you and your conversations in real-time to make sure you don’t break any rules. The company says this can happen when one user reports another or when other “signals” are detected, such as several players blocking or muting each other in quick succession. Users will not be notified when they’re being watched.

And third, everything you say, do, and build in Horizon is subject to Facebook’s Community Standards. So while in a public space you’re free to talk about anything you want, in Horizon there a many perfectly legal topics that you can’t discuss without fear of punitive action being taken against your account.

But Sony has filed a patent for a similar way of monitoring users in social VR, where you won’t necessarily be notified if you run afoul of the rules. The abstract for the patent reads as follows:

Shadow banning a participant within a social VR system includes: receiving and forwarding an identity of the participant, who may be shadow banned; recognizing and tracking inappropriate behaviors including inappropriate language and comments, inappropriate gestures, and inappropriate movements; receiving and processing the recognized and tracked inappropriate behaviors of the participant; generating a safety rating based on the processed inappropriate behaviors; comparing the safety rating to a threshold value; and outputting a signal to label the participant as a griefer and shadow ban the griefer when the safety rating is greater than the threshold value.

So, it sounds as though, if somebody makes an obscene gesture towards another avatar in a future social VR platform where this system is implemented (e.g. flips them the bird, or grinds up against them in a sexual way), that they would then be shadow banned, perhaps even becoming invisible to other users. What sets this proposed system apart from Facebook Horizon’s is that it would be triggered WITHOUT input from someone who reports the griefer.

Stop and think about that for a moment. Who is to decide what is inappropriate gesture, or inappropriate behaviour? The rudeness of various hand gestures varies by culture around the world; will American rules and codes of conduct take precedence over those of, say, Italy or India, which might differ? Can you be flagged just for staring at another person for longer than a few seconds? What is the dispute mechanism if you discover you are shadow banned, and will it be similarly automated? This is just a slippery slope, people.

An article about the patent by Jamie Feltham on UploadVR states:

Interestingly, one proposal for this solution includes “a system configured entirely with hardware” that specifically mentions tracking the user’s movement and even their gaze. Presumably, these would be features included in the headset itself. Another suggestion mentions using an “agent” placed within the application to judge any possible offenses.

While features like these may be necessary as VR expands, it also calls into question the security and privacy of any user’s actions within that social VR experience. Figuring out that balance will no doubt be a challenge for social VR app makers in the future.

It’s also interesting to note that Sony filed this document after PSVR’s release in 2016 and that the company doesn’t really have any big social apps to its own name on the platform. Could this be an indicator that Sony is indeed planning to launch a more robust social VR feature for the upcoming PS5 VR headset? We did report last month that the company had renewed the trademark for its PS3-era social VR service, PlayStation Home, so anything’s possible.

So perhaps Sony has a future social VR platform for PSVR users up its sleeve?

Another question which arises is: if Sony’s patent is awarded, will they be able to go after platforms like Facebook Horizon, which might use similar enough features to institute patent infringement? The mind boggles at the possibilities.

One thing is clear: the social VR marketplace is evolving so quickly that laws and regulations are struggling to play catch up. Facebook, for one, is collecting all kinds of personal data about your use of Oculus VR devices such as the Quest 2 (here’s the complete list, just for the Oculus app on your iPhone).

The more data collected and analyzed, the greater the chances that you could be branded a griefer and shadow banned!

In the future, if you look at another avatar the wrong way, you might land up shadow banned! (Image source: What Is Shadow Banning? on imge)

Thanks for Rob Crasco for alerting me to this patent!

The First User Reviews of Facebook Horizon Are Mixed

Wuhao from the RyanSchultz.com Discord server alerted me to the Oculus page for the invite-only beta version of Facebook’s new social VR platform, Facebook Horizon, where (much as they do on Steam) the first users have weighed in with their reviews.

As of this morning, there are 93 ratings in the Oculus five-star rating system, which break down as follows:

Half of the earliest reviewers give Horizon 5 out of 5 stars

One common complaint is that, while people liked the ease of use of the in-world building tools, Facebook Horizon lacks in tutorials and documentation for its scripting abilities. One user said:

The tutorials don’t go deep enough into using Scripts and Gizmos, and I have had to resort to deconstructing scripts inside the script example room. This is a horribly inefficient way to learn for a newbie. I find myself having to Google what some words mean (like [what the f*ck] is a Boolean?), and I’m having to connect the dots to figure out how variables and logic work inside the tools. A YouTube tutorial series, or even a series of help pages is sorely needed.

I met a man with experience in the game industry that said someone helped him learn how to build in Horizon over the last few months (he was in the Beta beta). Not all of us will be blessed with that opportunity to have a mentor.

I had to laugh at the Boolean comment; most people who have done even rudimentary computer programming know what Boolean logic is (AND, OR, NOT). But, of course, the target audience for Horizon is not computer programmers; it is the soccer moms of America, the millions of people who post cat pictures to their Facebook feeds and like other people’s posts. (Make that billions of people; Facebook has 2.7 billion monthly active users worldwide. That is whom Horizon is squarely aimed at. They’re not aiming this at the Second Life crowd, either, many of whom will not doubt be horrified that you can’t hide behind an avatar identity.)

And (of course) there are the usual complaints that are common to any brand-new social VR platform: not a lot of people (yet), and the usual severe gender imbalance, with way more men than women participating. One woman wrote in her review:

I have never been in an online community before, so this was a treat. It was pleasant talking to people and getting help on how to do things. My one criticism is that the few people there were all male. I was the only female there, and it would have been nice to have some female company, especially more mature women. I am 65. I visited some of the worlds and had fun shooting at a monster and a dragon, once I figured out how to make the weapons work (not much help from the app, but another player showed me how). One of the worlds where you build things out of building blocks needed multiple players, and I was the only one there. That was my other criticism: hardly any people were there. I guess that will be rectified once the app hits the market.

There are a few less-than-positive reviews:

Maybe I’m missing something but this felt like just another Rec Room, only far inferior, with other people’s avatars wandering around tring to work out what to do.

and…

Wasn’t that impressed was waiting and waiting for this thought it was gonna be something totally different than what was delivered. I’m not a tech nerd or a genius I couldn’t get anything to work in building mode I don’t know anything about coding or scripting I feel like if you want more people to contribute worlds and items your gonna have to dumb it down a little I actually only found the boomerang throw entertaining in the plaza. I’ve checked out a few worlds I thought some were kinda ok but nothing wow I might continue to pop in once in awhile to see what’s new but this isn’t my go to for fun.

and…

For anyone that has played Rec Room, they know that [it] is much better.

1. When you grab anything in here, the physics are terrible. Almost everything is going through your hand or not feeling realistic at all.
2. The graphics aren’t anything to be in awe of. Many other games have better and smoother graphics.
3. Almost no options for avatars. The avatar options are VERY limited.
4. I tried playing multiple games and I was the only person in any of them. Very very very boring.
5. Facebook takeover…talking about how much they monitor you. It’s just unsettling how they will record and watch and listen in on you and you won’t know.

And some people were just downright cranky:

Interesting. I liked the interaction as I first met up with older beings. But I’m hoping there are some filter/settings? to limit age groups? I think it would be a good idea to keep adults out of kids playing. (obvious reasons) and personally as a older man I had fun working with others until a young man (maybe 9 yr old?) joined us and though he was over all nice… I still got a head ache quickly with his noises and yapping and all around high pitched voice. Nothing wrong with that but it ruined my experience and the two other people I was working with on a puzzle… left. (I think for same reason). So I suggest adding a limit (who you see/join?) maybe setting a low limit of 18 and a higher limit of 40… or older folks like myself might want to limit 40-70. It just keeps those with more in common together and doesn’t let a youngster ruin a good thing like we had happen today. Personally I’d prefer 20+ and prefer no profanity. (maybe a setting). There were a couple of f’bombs and though I’m no prude… I’d prefer no hearing cursing unless it’s a slip.

One user felt that the actual product didn’t really match up to the advertising:

After spending a couple of days doing a little bit of everything, I have to say it’s not at all what I expected. Last year’s commercials set a much higher bar. However, world creation tools exceeded expectations as it almost seems to be a 3D modeling community more than anything else. (The problem with that is the majority of community members today are not modeling artists, so I miss the ‘consistently’ rich environments I get in Bigscreen for example.) IMO if the worlds could be made richer by novices then that would be spectacular! To do that I would suggest you offer room templates and a variety of editable objects like furniture and room boxes that we could customize —but it would be good if you could beat Rec Room’s childish templates, and get closer to the standard of last year’s Horizon commercials.

Here’s the commercial he was probably referring to:

But there are also many positive comments in the user reviews (and half of the earliest reviewers gave Facebook Horizon the highly favourable rating of five stars out of five):

After going through a couple hours of what Horizon has to offer I must say I’m very pleased and impressed by what I’ve seen so far. This definitely has a ton of room for all types of possibilities. I got one am very excited to see what will be coming as more and more developers contribute to this great app!!!

Of course, Facebook Horizon is still in an invite-only beta test mode, and is still very much a work-in-progress. Once Facebook adds to and refines the features of the product, and decides to open the doors to the general public, it will be very interesting to monitor this page over time, to see if the overall tone of the user reviews changes over time. (For example, Sansar has been absolutely crucified in its Steam reviews.)


Thank you to Wuhao for the heads-up!

My Projects for November

Have you joined the RyanSchultz.com Discord yet? You’re invited to be a part of the first ever cross-worlds discussion group, with over 460 people participating from every single social VR platform and virtual world! More details here


I tried.

I mean, I really, really tried, people.

My vow today was to spend the entire day (a vacation day) cleaning up both my spectacularly messy apartment and Vanity Fair’s overstuffed inventory, and assiduously avoiding any social media and any news media for any snippet of U.S. election news, good or bad.

My resolve lasted an hour. First, I peeked at my Twitter, just to see what hashtags were trending. Then, I opened up Google News, just to check the coronavirus headlines. After that, the floodgates were wide open. It looks like I, like so many other people, are going to be glued to their news media today and tomorrow, just to find out what happens.

*sigh* Oh well.

Image by Lena Helfinger from Pixabay

You should know that I do have two projects to work on over my holidays.

First, it is time—far past time—for me to reorganize and categorize my popular Comprehensive List of Social VR Platforms and Virtual Worlds. It’s waaay overdue. (And I’m curious to see what projects and platforms have thrived or folded.)

It’s also time for my annual November update of my Comparison Chart of Popular Social VR Platforms (and yes, I know, “Popular” is subjective). I do plan to draw on the readers of my blog and the 460-plus members of the RyanSchultz.com Discord server to crowdsource a lot of the information contained in the updated comparison chart. (Expect a separate, more detailed blogpost on this topic later this week.)

I will also have to rely on others to help me fill in all the details in the updated comparison chart for Facebook Horizon, as I intend to continue my personal boycott of all Facebook/Oculus products and services (as protest against the company forcing Oculus VR device users to set up accounts on the Facebook social network).

I am not naïve; I full well realize that the Oculus Quest 2 is gonna sell like hotcakes anyway, and no doubt I will continue to feel pressure (both from myself and from my readers) to cave in and buy one, just so I can report directly on the social VR platforms that will inevitably find fertile ground on the headset. I have zero doubt that, much like vibrant communities like Bray’s Place which have sprung up in Second Life over the seventeen years of its existence, healthy communities will spring up within Facebook Horizon (in face, Facebook is counting on that fact).