Facebook Metaverse: Will We Learn From The Wild-West of Second Life
By Betsy Burton
In 2003-2004, I was working on collaboration tools when “Second Life” emerged. Second Life is an immersive virtual environment where people can take on avatar roles and “virtually meet” in other worlds.
Watching Facebook/Meta’s Metaverse announcements reminded me that everything we find exciting about collaborating in the physical world may be available in a virtual world. But the challenges with collaborating in the physical world will also plague us in the virtual world.
Humans are humans. Without any rules, laws, norms, and repercussions, some individuals will give way to their worst impulses.
Unless Meta (Facebook), government entities, etc. put guardrails and guidelines in place, just like laws and rules in the physical world, Facebook/Meta’s Metaverse will likely become a chaotic representation of our worst impulses.
Lessons From Second Life: Not a Serious Marketplace
When Second Life first entered the market, a number of vendors, universities, and government agencies experimented with having a presence in Second Life. HP and IBM both had an environment in Second Life that someone could visit to see what they were doing. Some companies also held virtual product announcements and demos in Second Life. At first, vendors thought it might be a mechanism to reach lots of potential customers and partners in an exciting new way.
Second Life still exists today, but with a much-diminished level of serious interest; more of a multi-player gaming environment. There are still environments where people from around the world could get together. There are music venues, dance halls, religious gatherings, and, at one point, even a few Embassies. There is also a monetary system – Linden dollars.
The commercial interest in Second Life quickly waned as there were few if any ways to manage customers (e.g., garner leads, identities, ongoing information).
Lessons From Second Life: Bad Actors Can Run Rampant
I had an extremely negative experience of having my avatar shot in Second Life. A colleague and I were meeting in Second Life in a space that was designed and managed by a US university. During our meeting, an avatar came into our space and virtually shot our avatars. Our avatars were thrown into another location far from the university – spinning around in space. I returned my avatar again to the university space, and a virtual person was still shooting within the virtual space of the university.
I reported the event. In response to this virtual world incident in Second Life, the actual university in the physical world locked down their campus. This is just one incident that happened to me. But there are countless other reported and unreported incidents.
Big Issues in Virtual Worlds: Few Laws and Repercussions
To be honest, even though it was in a virtual world, I felt very disturbed. I had never experienced that type of violence and felt extremely exposed. It turns out the person who owned the account for the avatar that shot at our avatar had created that account that day. Second Life suspected that they had done this before.
One of the biggest challenges with any social networking environment is that there are few laws, rules, guidance, and even social norms that help form behavior. And, even worse, responding to virtual actions with repercussions in the physical world is nearly impossible.
A bad actor can hide their identity to hide from any management in a social network environment. And furthermore, can hide their identity from repercussions in the physical world.
Facebook Hasn’t Figured Out How to Manage Facebook; Why Would It Be Able to Manage Metaverse
We have seen mountains of evidence that Facebook has not figured out how to manage the Facebook environment, which has a much closer tie to the physical world. And in fact, there is good evidence that Facebook intentionally created an environment where conflict is exposed, promoted, and exploited (Key Takeaways From the Facebook Papers and Their Fallout).
Facebook’s Metaverse opens Pandora’s box of issues for individuals, businesses, and governments. And changing the name of the company does not address the core ethical business model issues. Even with thousands of content editors, it will not be able to police its Metaverse.
There are a few realities that we need to admit to:
- We have laws, rules, and norms for a reason. There will be some/many people who fall to their worst impulses without laws, rules, norms, and, most importantly, repercussions.
- Businesses are focused on growing revenues and seeking new business models that can help them grow their business models. They will try this in the physical and virtual world. The issue is that it is unclear how or if business regulatory laws apply in the virtual worlds, especially across worlds (physical and virtual).
- Governments are having a hard enough time governing the physical world; they have few if any rules and laws for governing the virtual world. And worse, most lawmakers have little technology expertise.
Honestly, I don’t have a lot of answers. I know a free-for-all is not the answer. Nor is it a completely locked down environment. Just like in the physical world.
But, until we figure these issues out, Metaverse will have a little commercial impact, except for Facebook/Meta. And, could likely do significant harm to our social engagement and discourse.
As individual users, we must be very aware of the significant costs of the wild west in these virtual worlds, especially when it comes to children. And understand that in Metaverse, we are operating with the human, business, and government realities mentioned above. A virtual world is as susceptible, if not more, to human misdeeds, especially with few laws, norms, and repercussions.