VR victory

VR spaces and ‘being yourself’

Be yourself in VR’: but you’re never alone in the new Facebook Spaces

Facebook clearly would not want you to be anything else, as their real name policy well demonstrates. A singular identity means they can easily track you and collect your data, and sell advertising on the back of it. I remember friends ranting about being shown ads on Facebook not that many years ago. They believed Facebook was a social service that should be provided free of charge for the good of society. But where are the ads in these demonstrations of Facebook Spaces? Absent for now, but they will come, as certainly as night follows day.

The world shown is not my world. The video represents the aspirations of moderately advantaged youth: holidays with friends, moving on to ‘no room-mates’ and clean, tidy new apartments; it’s single, unattached, uncomplicated, childless, with no elderly relatives to think about. It’s carefree, uncomplicated – and socially two dimensional.

Yet at the same time it is old-fashioned and unambitious. ‘Share memories’ is the notorious holiday slideshow during the days of film. ‘Get creative’ is live Pictionary. The introduction to the video is a ‘travelogue’, a film form that started in the 19th century and continued to the IMAX. ‘Capture the moment’ are memories: selfies taken in a place where one person has been but neither of you are at now. None of this is intended to take you out of your safe zone. A place where you can chat, let go of your inhibitions – while Facebook listens in and watches.

The starting assumption is that Facebook can help you and your friends and family get along even better together, building the harmonious global community of their ‘manifesto’. In Facebook Spaces we can choose a photo of a place we have been and be there with people (we think) we know. It’s our walled garden. Our friends who cannot afford headsets are able to join in on video, standing outside at the gates and chatting on the intercom. And Facebook reassure – not wanting to cause alarm – you can mute and evict your friends from your space. But what happens when you next talk on screen Facebook, or meet the person you evicted? No mention.

It’s Zuckerberg as Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumbered here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
If you pardon, we will mend…

As you’ll be aware, Second Life is the theme of this blog, and as a platform that has been around a long time, I think it is a useful comparison for the new VR experiences.

I would say that I am not much different in Second Life than in the actual world – except that’s not exactly true. At the core I think I’m the same – music-loving, artistic, creative, humorous, somewhat shy and uncertain, self-deprecating, political, passionate. But that’s not all of me, and in other ways I am different. Virtual worlds give you the space to explore and be different – because there is no real name policy and no obligation (or compulsion) to ‘be yourself’. You can be something different for as long as you wish, or be something else again, or just be yourself. You can experiment with identity and expand your friendships. It’s those options that make it liberating and life enhancing as a space.

Facebook Spaces is where  simply ‘being yourself’ is an uncomplicated thing. It is as if desire, identification and self are one unified being – but people are complex and contradictory. Sometimes I forget I started in Second Life while I was still denying the turmoil in my identity and my life, and that soon I would start transitioning. Second Life was a space where that did not matter – I could just be that core me, however difficult it was to navigate those early years in real life when I had to stand the insults, the sneaky photos and the aggression. It wasn’t escapism, but it certainly was escape.

I live in the real world all the time, even when I am in Second Life. But I am aware of Second Life being a separate space: it is a place I go to as a conscious decision, and then lose myself in. Other Residents talk about it in similar terms as I do – returning to rl, going to bed, brb, or afk – each represents a personal recognition of going away to somewhere different and separate.

Google Home and Amazon Echo’s digital assistant want want to be your friend in your space, always there, helpful and attentive. But ultimately a bug listening in to everything, with muting a dubious strategy. Facebook too wants to permeate as far as possible, though VR is different because of the headset. But once worn such rich data! A perfect laboratory to collect not just ‘eye tracking, galvanic skin response, heart rate and heart rate variability with ECG, muscle tension & facial expressions with EMG, and brain waves with EEG’ but also relaxed, unguarded VOIP interactions.

As in any online space, Second Life Residents will readily voice their opinions. But even Linden Lab’s ill-advised changes to the Terms of Service were nothing compared to what Facebook could do with VR. Despite the well-meaning intentions in the early days of the internet, advertising revenue is now king. And the race for advertising demands the collection of as much data as possible – and using as much of it as they can get away with.

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