I hadn’t read Snow Crash. So I first learned about the metaverse in 2008, right after returning from a family trip around the world and a few months before Barack Obama was elected President for the first time. I was a little disoriented coming back to America after 10 months in many other countries, especially during an election year, and it didn’t help that I was attending my very first ISTE conference – then convening “only” 18,000 educators from all over North America and a bunch of other countries – to learn about the state of education technology. Because I hardly knew where to start with a program of hundreds and hundreds of sessions, had seen quite a lot of news coverage of Second Life and noticed it appeared in a lot of places in the conference program, I decided just to go deep.
On my first day, I walked into the “Second Life Playground” and met the very patient rockstar tech educator Kevin Jarrett, who was volunteering there. He helped me – or rather my avatar Anny Khandr – get set up in the virtual world, showed me around ISTE’s islands and other places in there and introduced me to another rockstar educator, Peggy Sheehy, who later co-wrote a middle school language arts curriculum using the game World of Warcraft, and who introduced me to the brilliant Marianne Malmstrom, who later set up a Minecraft server for middle school students at her school.
And I met other inspiring teachers from all over North America who’d been interacting as avatars and volunteering as virtual docents on ISTE’s virtual islands. I watched them greet each other with total delight as they met in person after months or years of working and playing together as avatars in Second Life. There was this tangible sense of wonder and fun. Their inner little kids were very present in this space in San Antonio’s Henry B. González Convention Center. I really was on a playground.
The learning and touring I did in Second Life with these educators was, I think, the best possible introduction to the metaverse any non-gamer could have. I certainly learned that – as vast as Second Life was, with its gazillion “land masses” that people and entities like ISTE created and rented for real money – this was only part of the metaverse. The metaverse was already being built out and was very real in people’s minds; it would come to be many such worlds, games and other digital spaces interconnected. It was like the digital version of our galaxy, the Milky Way.
New space, old questions
[“Interconnected” is a key issue. The question is, will companies connect their “worlds” to those of other companies and to the worlds of public service organizations or even governments? Who decides what worlds get included? How will users or metaverse travelers know which worlds are legitimate and which ones built by bad actors, propagandists or conspiracy theorists? Who will keep track? All the same questions we have now will flow into the metaverse.]
Then, a few years and ISTE conferences later, Peggy recommended the novel Ready Player One, which offered me a very different view of a metaverse (you may’ve seen the 2018 film of the same name; I preferred the book). I got to see it through the eyes of an orphaned teenage boy learning how to navigate life as well as digital worlds – the eyes of a character I could feel for as a mom. This metaverse not only offered escape from a dark, distancing physical world, it was replacing it. It seemed to be erasing any reason to clean up what the real world had become. It was like the planet had become a lost cause.
So we have at least two ways to see the metaverse – which is already happening and is far from just a Facebook thing (even its CEO says). It can be on one or the other side of the stark contrast I offered above. More likely it’ll be something in between and a whole lot more than a giant collection of games, virtual meeting rooms and retail “therapy.” Venture capitalist Matthew Ball went into a whole lot more detail on its history, corporate players and potential in a 2020 blog post here.
For one thing, its builders must have a much clearer and more inclusive definition of “safety,” bake it into product design and actually deliver it. Safety is much more than the industry has been thinking of it, still thinks of it, since the earliest days of social media in the mid-2000s, when it only really referred to children and some other protected classes. It’s physical, psychological and legal for individuals, organizations, communities and whole societies. It encompasses physical safety and mental health, reputation, identity and property -intellectual, digital and physical – for everyone participating. It’s a tall order.
Facebook won’t own the metaverse, thankfully. No single entity should. Microsoft has been talking about it a lot this year (see this), and Roblox and Nvidia are also frequently mentioned in references to it. Certainly it will also have NGOs and parts of or full governments represented in it.
But Facebook is all-systems-go in building it out. So it was good that, about 50 minutes into Mark Zuckerberg’s presentation about the new name on Thursday, Meta’s head of global policy Nick Clegg “popped up on a Portal to ask Zuckerberg how he plans to build the metaverse responsibly,” as journalist Casey Newton described it. It was good that Zuckerberg said Meta would “design for safety, privacy and inclusion” and work with experts on those things in doing so. It was good that he reiterated Meta’s Reality Labs’ “principles for building the future” – “never surprise people,” “provide controls that matter,” “consider everyone” and “put people first” (53:30). And it was good that, in Zuckerberg’s “Founder’s Letter” of October 28, he said that “feeling truly present with another person is the ultimate dream of social technology.” I think so too, and my educator friends demonstrated that for me.
But nice words and good intentions aren’t enough; that dream can’t be realized if people don’t trust they’ll be carried out. If they don’t feel safe or believe Facebook/Meta is serious about safety in the two-dimensional space called social media we’re experiencing now, how will they in the 3D one for which it has changed its name? Meta has a trust issue that obviously goes back to before the blizzard of whistleblower coverage this month and before Cambridge Analytica in 2018. Citing three different studies, University of Pennsylvania business school professor Americus Reed told CNBC that “almost half of American consumers distrust Facebook.”
It’s only fair to say that Facebook has done a lot to make its current products safer (examples here and here), but with a whole metaverse developing quickly now, making single products safer is no longer enough. The company has set industry standards in transparency and has poured significant resources into safety for users in some regions of the world. But an uneven approach to safety that favors particular markets or languages has led to great harm in Myanmar, Sri Lanka and India and represents great risk to people in, for example, Ethiopia and other African countries.
A better metaverse
In my last post, I suggested that, given its footprint on the planet and in the individual lives of more than 3 billion people, Facebook/Meta (before/after) is as much a social institution as a corporation. Well before anyone was talking about the metaverse, we were all in uncharted territory. Facebook faced a capacity issue as well as an ethical one and still does. The metaverse changes nothing. A single giant corporation based in one country can’t know the potential impact of its content moderation decisions for people in every country, culture and political system on the planet, nor can or should a chief executive accountable to investors expect to make the right, sometimes life-and-death, decisions for 3+ billion constituents all over the world. Meta has the opportunity to acknowledge this, show the kind of leadership commensurate with the role it now has in the world and organize itself accordingly – so that its users are as important as its advertisers and investors.
So back to the galaxy analogy: I hope that the metaverse will be different from this earlier 2D version we’ve been experiencing – that users will be and feel safe not only on some planets, but rather on all of them and when traveling between them too. There has to be collaboration across the galaxy, which means planet providers (companies) working together with travelers/users, independent helpers and informed regulators whom travelers elect or at least trust to ensure their safety and control of their data. Then maybe, just maybe, the metaverse will be fun, intriguing and sometimes meaningful or inspirational, or just useful – not just an escape but also an escape too (because sometimes we need one). I hope the metaverse will include care and safe havens for weary travelers and that it will never even come close to replacing our beautiful little planet.
- Simple Wikipedia’s definition of “institution”: “a social structure in which people cooperate and which influences the behavior of people and the way they live”
- For parents and educators who want to learn about the implications of VR, AR and mixed reality on youth, here’s fantastic text and pictorial perspective from the youth & media researchers at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center: “Youth and Extended Reality: An Initial Exploration”
- An interview with 2021 Nobel Peace Prize winner Maria Ressa on social media’s effects in her country, the Philippines, on the New Yorker Radio Hour (with New Yorker editor David Remnick on New York Public Radio). Peter Pomerantsev tells her story at the beginning of his 2019 book This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality
- Facebook this year announced it would work to adhere to universal humans rights principles, support human rights organizations and help protect human rights defenders. This is outstanding, but Meta needs to go further and consult with international human rights organizations to decide if it can adequately uphold human rights in specific countries – such as Ethiopia, where its content moderation reportedly doesn’t support all five main languages- and agree to go dark in such countries if human rights experts say it could not provide adequate protection (again, not possible if Meta operates strictly as a publicly traded company). See this from South Africa-based researcher Tomiwa Ilori on the importance of “a multi-stakeholder model…for shaping the use and evolution of the Internet” in Africa. as he cites Principle 17(4) of the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa.
- A brief interview with the creator of the metaverse idea, Neal Stephenson, author of the 1992 book Snow Crash at Axios.com
- About the first social media integrity team outside the platforms, the Integrity Institute – coverage at Protocol
- About an alleged executive decision threatening free speech in Vietnam (the Washington Post)
- As for the public sector part of the metaverse: the city of Seoul announced it will have a variety of public services fully operational in the metaverse by 2026, QZ.com reports.
- About how Anton and other “pint-size Wall Street quants” and not-at-all-bored virtual suburbanites and wannabe child laborers experience the metaverse as described in the New York Times
- About the various competing visions of the metaverse from the Wall Street Journal
- About another billionaire, the one behind Whistleblower Aid, The Social Dilemma and the Center for Human Technology (see also journalist Glenn Greenwald’s very in-depth piece on Pierre Omidyar and an October 2020 piece in the New York Times on Big Tech’s professional opponents)
- My take-always from the “Facebook Files”
Disclosure: I serve on the Trust & Safety advisories of Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, Yubo and YouTube, and the nonprofit organization I founded and run, The Net Safety Collaborative, has received funding from some of these companies.