It’s Time to Break Up with Social Media (and Fall in Love with Social VR instead)

by Lance Powell, VR/AR Researcher at VR First Lab BAU

If you were to build a Tag Cloud (aka Word Cloud) with terms relating to Facebook in 2019, it’s indisputable you would expect to see terms like Myanmar, Cambridge Analytica, Cyberbullying, Addiction, and Anti-Trust thrown into the mix. While the social media giant has always preached the value of connectedness, the unintended consequences are being felt, either overtly or subtly, by a large section of the global population. The specifics of these offenses have been listed ad nauseam elsewhere, and I won’t take up space repeating them here but,

since people are so quick to point their finger at Facebook, I would like to point out how blame could also be shared among users.

In 2018, it was discovered that the aforementioned Cambridge Analytica was constructing a database of users’ personality profiles based on their answers to a personality quiz. This data was then used for the purpose of targeted, and thus highly effective, political messaging. If it weren’t so sad, the irony of people who, in an attempt to feed their own vanity, end up making themselves vulnerable to political messaging is delicious. Still everyone — from the user to the platform — has moments of naivety. Facebook responded by banning personality quizzes from the platform and, one hopes, people will be more cautious with their data.

Meanwhile, there’s been an undercurrent of public voices — mostly podcasters — whose response has been to reflect what on social media is and seek to understand our incentives for using it. In their current form, social media platforms are empowered by what’s known as the Same-Side Network Effect in which the value of the service increases proportionally to the number of additional users. In short, the more users you connect through the platform, the more value you bring to those users. Here, the amount of value you derive is virtually limitless since the only cap is the number of people on Earth able to use the platform. People can connect through personal relationships, shared interests or knowledge, through a marketplace, love of photography, or a cultural affiliation. At F8 2019, Facebook even announced a feature called ‘Secret Crush’ which will allow Facebook friends to make a love connection (aka hook up) more easily; I can imagine the news headlines already. As more services are integrated into the platform, people will have even further incentives to join and spend an increasing amount of time there. Still, the abuses of cyberbullies, political activists, and third-party businesses will only continue.

Facebook F8 Developers Conference | Secret Crush
We’ve come to realize that social media is not all that ‘social.’ Instead, it tends to be a series of annotated personal galleries representing idealized versions of ourselves

that may be amassed in a news feed which is sorted by an algorithm that prioritizes likely reactions from other users. The accumulated data and the semi-permanent nature of the venue lends itself to increasingly sophisticated analysis, which is then used by commercial, political, and ideological propagandists to shape your opinions and behavior. The bad press regarding this conundrum has prompted many to abandon their platforms, but many remain since there seems to be no viable replacement and you have to convince your entire network to go with you. However, we’re fortunate enough to live in a time when a reasonable alternative is available to us: Social VR.

Social VR platforms have been popping up sporadically since 2016, see: Rec Room, Sansar, TheWaveVR, OrbusVR, High Fidelity, Anyland, AltspaceVR, Somnium Space, NeosVR, Facebook Spaces… and they have refined their platforms to great success in the intervening years. The hardware has been increasingly accessible as HTC Vive and Oculus both have wireless options, and, as a high-end 6DoF standalone, Oculus Quest is poised to have significant mainstream impact. Moreover, many Social VR apps are cross-platform, also playable on desktop, and Rec Room is even expanding to iPad/iPhone (currently in Beta). This wariness towards social media and wide accessibility of Social VR has created the perfect climate for a mass migration, where users leave their current circumstances for something better.

Rec Room | Trailer

When you leave the largely asynchronous communication on a self-curated page that happens through social media and replace it with the real-time verbal and physical interactions happening in a shared environment, you are moving to a form of social engagement that is closer to in-person communication, retaining a larger fraction of the social benefits, and by design has fewer of the risks. In our daily lives, we may engage with classmates and colleagues, but modern life gives us precious few opportunities to meaningfully, and positively, interact with strangers who might have radically different backgrounds than us. Social VR has the same global reach as social media, also allowing you to hang out with friends, if desired, but the experience of Social VR is sustained by conversation and play whereas most social media platforms could survive without a chat feature.

Social VR puts us in the moment with other people for the sake of interpersonal connection.

We do have avatar choice in Social VR, which — if you think about it — happens to a small degree in ‘real’ life too, but you aren’t granted the time to curate an image, thereby encouraging us to be ourselves. Personally, I’ve heard many testimonials from people in Social VR who found a real sense of community in this realm, they have treated extreme social awkwardness, established real-life friendships, and met their spouses there. Almost nobody would claim that Social VR is a replacement for in-person relationships, but for many it presents a transition towards a traditional social life, or at least a supplement to it. Social VR is what social media wishes it was; it is a source of connection where social media is often a source of isolation.

Oculus Connect 4 | Day 1 Keynote

In Oculus Connect 2017, Mark Zuckerberg laid out the goal of getting ‘a billion people’ in VR. There is also a recognition that Social VR is the way to do it. You may have also noticed Facebook Spaces in the above list of platforms. Spaces integrates with the individual’s social media page and, since it’s also a good platform, I applaud them for embracing that change. Even if VR itself never reaches the one-billion mark, most Social VR platforms are representative of an Asymptotic Network Effect in which, beyond a certain point, the added value for users is only marginally increased by the addition of more users. When a Social VR space can be continually populated by a new mix of people and user-generated content continues to grow in moderation, there is little more benefit that users will see with the addition of more people. In short, the experience with a million users is essentially the same as ten million users. This means it is unlikely that there will ever be a single, dominant Social VR platform (an Oasis, if you will), so there will be a restricted ability to monetize user data. Also, multiple platforms can fit the tastes of different people and there’s never a need to choose one platform at the expense of another.

To give a quick disclaimer, harassment in Social VR is an ongoing problem that must be responsibly dealt with. As ugly as it is, I would argue that it is less extreme than cyberbullying in social media and victims are more empowered to do something about it. I have extensively researched and analyzed the topic in my master’s Thesis.

I’m not personally calling for the abandonment of all social media since it still holds value for many people, myself included. Instead, I encourage people to reevaluate their relationship with social media and use it more conscientiously. We cannot hide behind ignorance any longer and have to accept that its continued use comes at a personal cost and social cost. Social VR doesn’t ask for personality quizzes and it’s unlikely to result in a Myanmar or Cambridge Analytica. If we do some soul searching and find too much of our time and attention goes to social media, I would propose giving some of that attention to Social VR as a socially (and often physically) healthy alternative.

For more advice on what to do in VR — read my Social Lifestyles Magazine — the first of its kind!

Enjoy!

Lance G Powell Jr