Facebook founder shared, in 2019, his desire to create his version of a metaverse. “Metaverse” is a portmanteau of the words “meta” and “universe”, referring to a virtual social platform in 3D. Second Life, IMVU, or Roblox are good examples of this.
Presented as a decentralized space « made by all of us », Zuckerberg’s Horizon Worlds is accessible to all Canadian and American users over 18 years old since December 6th. To use it, users must own a Virtual Reality headset. The entrepreneur is actually promoting his Oculus brand through this social application.
When logged in, users see themself in an alternative universe among strangers. It does look like a virtual reality version of a good-old messy chatroom and might sound exciting, but users already experienced some well-known issues.
The Beta-Test Situation
Even before the official launch of the Metaverse, a beta-tester has been a victim of sexual harassment. She shared her experience via the dedicated Facebook page. Although Meta created a Safezone feature to make a bubble of private space, she did not feel safe. The Verge shared her testimony in an article:
“Sexual harassment is no joke on the regular internet, but being in VR adds another layer that makes the event more intense,” she wrote. “Not only was I groped last night, but there were other people there who supported this behavior which made me feel isolated in the Plaza. “
After the incident, Meta addressed the situation. Vivek Sharma, vice-president of Horizon, told the American media that it was “absolutely unfortunate “ and added, “That’s good feedback still for us because I want to make [the Safezone] trivially easy and findable “.
Explaining that she did not use the Safezone feature correctly was not reassuring. The same could happen to any other user. Is Horizon safe to use at this early stage? Beta-tests provided the opportunity to make improvements, still, the same issue happened again after Horizon’s official launch in Canada and the US.
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A Persisting Issue
When Bloomberg columnist Parmy Olson tried the platform, she experienced the same issue and had to figure out everything by herself. The platform does not have instructions, and she soon felt uneasy. “I was the only woman among a dozen or so men.”, she explained. “Within moments, I was surprised by a deep voice in my ear, as if someone was whispering into it.“
She then explained that a small group of men surrounded her and took digital photos of her avatar. It took place while she was being helped by another user, teaching her how to control her character. This detail is essential as it implies how complicated it is to use Horizon correctly, even with some help.
In her article, Olson rose the alarm also on another problem: children’s safety. As said before, Horizon Worlds is accessible to users over 18. But when the journalist logged in, she could hear children screaming in their microphones. Everybody knows it is difficult to prevent them from using social media.
Zuckerberg previously faced this problem with Facebook. However, all web platforms are struggling with this, there are many young children on Snapchat, Instagram, or even making Youtube videos.
As Horizon Worlds is advertised everywhere, it might be fairly easy to access for the younger ones. Considering the dangers of the metaverse, the company should do its best to verify users’ age.
Horizon Worlds: Facebook Issues Continue
Earlier this year, former Facebook data scientist Frances Haugen leaked thousands of internal documents to the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Wall Street Journal.
These documents show that Facebook is aware that its platform is used for human trafficking and calling violence against minorities. The company also continues to promote Instagram and ignore its negative impact. Teenagers’ and women’s mental health are the most affected according to several studies.
Will Horizon Worlds Ever Be A Safe Place?
When using virtual reality, things seem more real. And inappropriate behaviors could then lead to negative emotional responses especially for minorities, children, and women.
It affects their way of reacting to certain situations, and young users might also assimilate those inappropriate behaviors, as they won’t understand how hurtful they are.
Will Facebook (Now Meta) address these issues?
In the cover picture: A woman using a Virtual Reality headset. Photo Credit: Unsplash.