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
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).
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.
What used to be called “Oculus Connect” for many years, and then was renamed to “Facebook Connect” last year, is now suddenly just “Connect”. You have to scroll down, and hunt around a bit, to find any mention of Facebook on the homepage!
Facebook is planning to change its company name next week to reflect its focus on building the metaverse, according to a source with direct knowledge of the matter.
The coming name change, which CEO Mark Zuckerberg plans to talk about at the company’s annual Connect conference on October 28th, but could unveil sooner, is meant to signal the tech giant’s ambition to be known for more than social media and all the ills that entail. The rebrand would likely position the blue Facebook app as one of many products under a parent company overseeing groups like Instagram, WhatsApp, Oculus, and more. A spokesperson for Facebook declined to comment for this story.
Facebook already has more than 10,000 employees building consumer hardware like AR glasses that Zuckerberg believes will eventually be as ubiquitous as smartphones. In July, he told The Verge that, over the next several years, “we will effectively transition from people seeing us as primarily being a social media company to being a metaverse company.”
A rebrand could also serve to further separate the futuristic work Zuckerberg is focused on from the intense scrutiny Facebook is currently under for the way its social platform operates today. A former employee turned whistleblower, Frances Haugen, recently leaked a trove of damning internal documents to The Wall Street Journal and testified about them before Congress. Antitrust regulators in the US and elsewhere are trying to break the company up, and public trust in how Facebook does business is falling.
But really, all this is is just a name change. The same fundamental problems that Facebook has are still there; slapping a fresh coat on paint on everything is not going to fix the fact that Facebook requires you to set up an account on its social network in order to use Oculus VR headsets going forward. More and more, people are realizing that it’s not a good ides to trust Facebook with your personal data. As I have written before on this blog:
Some will respond that Google, Apple, Amazon, and many other firms commit the same level of personal data vacuuming that Facebook does, which is true. However, I actually have more faith that those companies will at least not weaponize their data against me. Few companies have seen the level of public distrust rise as high as Facebook (and frankly, the company’s recent fight with Apple over the latter wanting to make transparent how much data Facebook collects on you, is SO nota good look for Mark Z.).
Time and time again over the years, Facebook has shown that it cannot be trusted (see: the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the incitement of violence in Myanmar, to give just two relatively recent examples of egregious behaviour happening on the platform). Combine that lack of trust with its overweening ambitions, and you have a potentially serious problem.
I responded by voting with my feet and my wallet, deleting my Facebook and Oculus accounts, and vowing to never again purchase or participate in any Facebook/Oculus hardware and software, a decision which I explain here, and one which I continue to stand by in good conscience. I full well realize that I might be missing out, but I consider the price of admission to be too high (and frankly, too opaque). God knows how my personal data is being used, and Facebook’s track record frankly sucks.
I even went so far as to ask Facebook to delete all the data it had on me, but I also know that the Facebook social network probably has some sort of “shadow account” on me, based on things such as images uploaded to the social network and tagged with my name by friends and family who are still on Facebook. I am going to assume that Facebook has indeed done what I have asked and removed my data from their social network. Frankly, there is no way for me to actually verify this, as consumers in Canada and the U.S. have zero rights over the data companies like Facebook collects about them, as was vividly brought to life by Dr. David Carroll, whose dogged search for answers to how his personal data was misused in the Cambridge Analytica scandal played a focal role in the Netflix documentary The Great Hack (which, by the way, I very strongly recommend you watch).
And need I remind you that the January 6th, 2021 insurrectionists in Washington, D.C. also used Facebook to help organize? Not to mention the misinformation, disinformation, and crazy conspiracy theories about COVID-19 and vaccines circulating on the platform (although this is a problem on other social media as well). The Facebook social network and its algorithms have become a toxic cesspool, and anything that touches it, or (in the case of Oculus) forcibly integrated with it, becomes tainted by association.
So no, a name change is not enough—not nearly enough.
UPDATE 1:45 p.m.: Of course, Twitter is all over the Facebook rebranding news with its trademark snark. Here’s just a sample of the responses in my feed today:
Three years ago, Sandy Parakilas, an earlier Facebook whistleblower, explained to me the power of the SEC, which regulates the financial markets, by telling me that in America, money will enable you to get away with most things. “But the one thing you can’t do,” he said, “is to fuck with our capitalism.”
The UN found Facebook helped facilitate a genocide in Myanmar. We know that it helped foment an insurrection at the US Capitol. And its own research says it is harming teenagers. (A 2019 Facebook presentation slide, just revealed, said: “We make body-image issues worse for one in three teenage girls.”)
That’s all fine, it turns out, but if this suit can prove it’s lied to investors, someone is going to jail. If I were a Facebook employee, I’d be browsing the whistleblower section of the SEC’s website, which grants immunity from prosecution, very, very carefully.
In other words, both the Delaware and D.C. lawsuits mean that Facebook is in serious, serious trouble—no matter what they call themselves.
Today Facebook announced that it was rebranding its still-in-closed-beta social VR platform, from Facebook Horizon to Horizon Worlds. This move makes sense to me; attaching the name “Facebook” to anything the behemoth company wants to promote is probably a smart PR move, given the recent level of notoriety of their brand and the battering of their public image.
When we launched Horizon’s invite-only beta last year, we started to build a creator-friendly space in VR with best-in-class social world-building tools. We’ve spent the past year developing those tools and improving them based on creator feedback. These early creators have grown the social experiences on the Horizon platform, and we’ve been amazed by their imagination and creativity on display. We’re excited to do more to support them, so starting today, we’re launching new initiatives to recognize the efforts of Horizon creators and continue to grow the creator and developer community.
We’re announcing a $10 million Creator Fund to encourage more people to come build with us as we continue rolling out Horizon in beta. And as we grow the social experiences that are part of Horizon, we’re rolling out a new name for this experience: Horizon Worlds.
The US$10 million will be distributed through community competitions, via its Creator Accelerator Program, and funding for developers, studios or creators who wish to partner with Facebook. Ian Hamilton of UploadVR reports:
Overall, then, two years after its initial launch Facebook is honing Horizon Worlds around its VR-based creative community with the $10 million creator fund to be doled out through community competitions, an accelerator program, and funding for developers who agree to build for Horizon according to Facebook’s suggested theme.
Facebook said it would add more people to the testing release of Horizon Worlds throughout the rest of 2021.
“We fully expect ticketed events, we fully expect people to be asking for gifting of goods, trading of goods, buying digital goods and items, as well as of course experiences themselves, so subscriptions inside of these experiences themselves,” said Sharma. “I having nothing to announce today in terms of exact features that we’re working on, but if you take a look at what the family of apps at Facebook already support, it’s a pretty good line that we already have the capabilities other places that we can tie all of these things together into a nice bow for our creators.”
There’s a couple of interesting things in Ian’s report that I wish to highlight.
First, that Facebook would continue its “testing release of Horizon Worlds throughout the rest of 2021”. In other words, don’t expect the platform to open up to the general public before 2022. You may speculate for the reasons for that delay. My sources who have visited the social VR platform in person tell me the same two things, over and over again:
Horizon Worlds has fantastic in-world building tools (similar in many ways to the prim-building tools in Second Life, where many metaverse content creators got their start); and
Horizon Worlds is having difficulty building, maintaining, and moderating its community. Many tell me the platform is deserted, which might be an indication of how few people they have let into the closed beta-testing phase. However, it might also be because people visit, wander around, get bored, and leave (call it “Sansar syndrome”).
Second, please note carefully that the funding is for developers “who agree to build for Horizon according to Facebook’s suggested theme”. Hear that? It’s the sound of potential developers running for the exits. Facebook wants firm control over what kind of worlds you build, and they are willing to dictate themes. From the official announcement:
If you’re a developer, studio or creator and you’re interested in partnering with us for funded opportunities to create experiences for Horizon in a particular theme, you can sign up to learn more about the next set of themes.
So, while Facebook might slap a fresh coat of paint on its flagship social VR platform, and throw some of the spare change from Mark Zuckerberg’s couch cushions at content creators, there is, as Vivek Sharma (Vice President of Horizon at Facebook Reality Labs) states in the UploadVR article, “nothing to announce today in terms of exact features that we’re working on”.
When the social service was first showcased for Oculus Quest in late 2019 it supported worlds made in Unity which were noticeably more complex and engaging than those made in VR using Facebook’s tools. Unity is the most popular game engine among developers and, alongside Roblox, Rec Room and Epic Games, the companies are on a short list of efforts to build powerful yet easy-to-use tools for interactive 3D virtual world creation. Facebook tried to acquire Unity in the past and the acquisition would’ve given the advertising giant a key toolset that would push many creators to work with the social media company. Instead of selling, though, Unity went public on the stock market in late 2020.
“We don’t have any plans [for] direct Unity-level development on top of Worlds, but absolutely as a VR developer you can build on top of Unity and bring that experience, whether its a game or something else, over to Oculus through the Oculus app store,” said Vivek Sharma, VP of Horizon at Facebook Reality Labs.
We recently launched Horizon Workrooms on Oculus Quest 2. It’s a new way to collaborate remotely across the world, through the power of virtual reality. And today, we’re excited to announce we’re teaming up with Zoom to integrate Workrooms even more deeply into your everyday workflows, starting next year.
Regardless of physical distance, people can meet up inside Workrooms and feel like they’re in the same room together. With immersive features like avatars and 3D spatial audio, and the ability to access your desktop computer and keyboard seamlessly from VR, Workrooms is designed to improve your team’s ability to collaborate, communicate, and connect. And starting next year, we’ll be taking Workrooms to the next level, letting you easily join Zoom Meetings and use Zoom Whiteboard all from within VR—we’re showing a sneak peek of what it could look like today at Zoomtopia, which you can check out here.
Facebook has bottomless pockets of money (mostly raised by strip-mining your personal data and selling it to advertisers), and it only makes sense that the company will use that income to forge alliances with other well-positioned companies such as Zoom (which I have no doubt profited greatly from the coronavirus pandemic).