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!

Editorial: The Competition for Social Audio Is Getting Interesting

Twitter versus Clubhouse: who will win the battle for social audio?

I’ve written twice this week about Clubhouse (here and here), and I remain endlessly fascinated about social audio apps in general, and the two leading apps, Twitter Spaces and Clubhouse, in particular. It would appear that the competition between Twitter and Clubhouse is beginning to heat up, with Twitter working aggressively to add users and features while Clubhouse seems to be experiencing some growing pains. While Clubhouse has the early lead, Twitter is making slow but steady progress, particularly in support for Android users.

Late this afternoon, I listened to a Twitter Spaces room where the future of Twitter was discussed at length, and it is clear that the new push is towards attracting content creators and providing ways to effectively monetize the platform for them. Twitter product lead Kayvon Beykpour tweeted today about just how far Twitter Spaces has come in only four months:

Anyone of Twitter with more than 600 followers can now host their own Twitter Spaces room, which anybody on Twitter can listen to and join in, without any limit on how many people can be in the room (Clubhouse rooms are capped at 5,000 people). Also, Twtter Spaces supports both iOS and Android devices, although Clubhouse is expected to roll out Android support sometime in the next month.

Also, Clubhouse does not have a direct message ability, relying instead on people putting Instagram and Twitter links in their bios so that people can contact each other. Of course, Twitter already has direct messaging built into the platform (although celebrities and other people can choose to turn that feature off).

All this means is that social audio is still anybody’s game to win. While Twitter Spaces is lagging behind Clubhouse in terms of overall features, Twitter has something that Clubhouse does not: a much larger potential audience (192 million users). In other words, once Kayvon and his team work out some of the bugs and add more features, they could potentially have a hit on their hands. And Facebook, with 2.8 billion user accounts and deep pockets full of profits from advertising, has the potential to come in and steamroller over both Clubhouse and Twitter Spaces.

(By the way, the Twitter Spaces room I was in crashed abruptly…it would appear that there are still quite a few bugs to iron out!)

Stay tuned; things are about to get really interesting!

Andrew “Boz” Bosworth and John Carmack Have a Discussion About Next-Generation Virtual Reality

When John Carmack and Andrew “Boz” Bosworth have a conversation, people tend to listen. Andrew is vice president in charge of augmented and virtual reality at Facebook, and of course John is the millionaire Chief Technical Officer of Oculus, who is currently working away on an Artificial General Intelligence project.

The two recently held a half-hour conversation on Twitter Spaces (Twitter’s version of the hot new drop-in audio app Clubhouse), which offered a fascinating glimpse into the heads of two key people who are driving Facebook’s move into virtual reality.

Right now [VR is] still largely an early adopters’ toy where a lot of people that have VR already have everything else, and we’re just adding some new spice, but we need to be a displacement device where we need to be something that somebody hard up for money decides “I’m going to buy a VR headset instead of a Chromebook or instead of a tablet.” And we need to do everything that those devices do. You know, we need to have similar app libraries. We need to be just as effective with keyboard and mouse. We need it to be something that you could put on your head and do the work that you need to do during a normal day.

—John Carmack

Anybody who uses what Philip Rosedale has pejoratively called a “marimba keyboard” (i.e. where you use a mallet-like device to awkwardly type on a virtual keyboard), can immediately relate to what John says here. Despite the many technical advances of the past five years, we are still not anywhere near the ease of use that is required for people to actually opt for a VR headset instead of a tablet!

Here’s the whole half-hour discussion, which I can highly recommend: