How the need to become friends gets in the way of getting some things done.
Facebook and other platforms ask you first to establish a connection with your intended partner, and only once your request has been accepted you can proceed to interact. This follows common-sense rules because otherwise, you would be bothered by anybody without your consent (wait a moment –this is exactly what happens with junk mail and phone calls!), and the whole point of a social network is to get connected with people you want to be connected with.
But in many settings, the point is not to get connected to somebody, but to get something done collaboratively, and then the restriction that you have to be a friend of that person to be able to collaborate is just a hindrance.
Take for example the Wikipedia pages. I have myself added or corrected information in some of them, building over the work of people I’ve never met. Imagine that to write additional details on a page about the Machu Picchu civilization you needed to become a friend of the person who made previous editings. That makes no sense, isn’t it? This is because the purpose, in this case, is not to make friends, but to get a piece of improved information about Machu Picchu.
Wikipedia is one of the most paradigmatic examples of Web 2.0, which allowed the collaborative creation of content. A network of users helps each other to create content (not always in a friendly way, take the pages about the GOP for example), interacting with strangers to get things done, not to become pals.
Now enter the Virtual Reality (VR) scene, specifically where there are multiple participants in the same virtual space. Here, I see two extreme social designs: one is like Facebook “Spaces” or “Rooms”, the apps for Oculus Rift and Go respectively. The other extreme is like AltSpaceVR, now acquired by Microsoft.
In Facebook’s Rooms, you have to be, well, Facebook friends to be able to interact. The whole purpose of the app is to let you hang out with your friends in a virtual space that you can tailor to your taste within the available options. Facebook friendship here is a no-brainer.
In AltSpaceVR you just get into one of the available virtual “worlds” with your avatar and then you can meet avatars of other people who happened to be already there. The closer your avatar is to the other one, the louder you hear the conversation or avatars nearby. Groups of avatars are formed and disbanded organically as the users find the conversations cool or boring. No “friendship requirement” is put ahead of the interactions you can get here.
I happen to be the CEO of Avalinguo, a startup in the language learning EdTech scene. We put users together in virtual rooms to practice talking in foreign languages, and each user is represented by an avatar on the screen of a standard cellphone (no VR headsets yet). Now, in Avalinguo you as a user normally talk to strangers, because the talking sessions are not scheduled, and the user just gets into the interaction space of a virtual room. Of course, by chance, you can encounter somebody you already met, but this is the exception, not the norm.
Avalinguo tends more to be on the AltSpaceVR side because there is no “friendship requirement” (you don’t have to be friends, not even contacts). In principle, the purpose of the interaction is to learn to speak a language, not to make friends, though of course, you could indeed become friends after a couple of conversation sessions.
We intend to include in Avalinguo a “favorite user” option, which is not a mutual friendship (though the other user could be notified of your choice of making her/him “favorite”) but is a form of connection. Further, we want to send to users notifications when one of their “favorite” users is in a session and there is a place available in the room. At this point we see Avalinguo heading to the Facebook side…
So, in conclusion, the “friendship requirement” in VR could be a hindrance if the goal is not to hang out with specific persons. But some forms of user connection could be a welcome addition sometimes. It’s not really a binary choice, but a whole spectrum from the Facebook extreme to the AltSpaceVR one.
I agree with Unity’s CEO Riccitiello about the early stages VR is now compared to its potential, and how far it is from its mainstream adoption; one aspect of its development I think is going to be its diversification, so we are going to find more Facebook-side and AltSpaceVR-side examples, with even more in-between ones, as is the case of Avalinguo.