How Safe Is the Metaverse?

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S1: Heads up, you might not want to listen to this show with kids, we talk about some pretty heavy stuff. Last month, Washington Post reporter Wil Oremus spent a weekend afternoon with his Oculus headset on. He was messing around in Facebook’s new virtual reality platform. Horizon Worlds

S2: During the afternoon I was wandering around just checking out the various random games that users have built in there

S1: and what like what? What do you see whenever you like?

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S2: Some are better than others. I’ll say, you know, anybody can build a little mini experience or game within Horizon worlds. The one that I was in that day was called Magic Mania to Magic Mania.

S1: I am Miss Martha and the head, which here in the game you’re dropped into what looks like a big palace or castle. Players are handed wands and then shoot one of three spells at each other. It’s a little like Rock-Paper-Scissors in that some spells, but other ones.

S2: I was alone in this game and there was nobody else in there. And then we had this little voice says, Where are you? And I was like, I was like a little creeped out, to be honest. I mean, this is, you know, usually in horizon worlds in this virtual reality world. It’s the real voice of the person. And that sounded like a little kid and there and I didn’t say anything in person. They were like, I can’t find you. Can you give me a hint?

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S1: And what did you do?

S2: I showed myself and I was like, Try to be friendly. And I asked if they were a kid because I was curious. They I said, How old are you? And they said they were nine, and they said, Oh, well, are you using one of your parent’s headsets or Facebook account? And they said, Yeah. And at that point, I was like, This is this is a little bit of a concerning situation

S1: concerning because kids are not supposed to be on horizon worlds or even to have a Facebook account if they’re under 13. But also concerning because this product is Facebook’s first foray into the Metaverse. The company just rebranded itself as Metta, and this is supposed to be its future. So what does it say that Metaverse first offering out of the gate? Its new direction as a company has got nine year olds wandering around. Today on the show, Will takes us through this problematic virtual world and what its issues mean for Medha in the real one. I’m Lizzie O’Leary and you’re listening to what next? TBD a show about technology, power and how the future will be determined. Stick with us. I want to back up a little bit and explain what Horizon Worlds is, how it fits into this larger thing. The Metaverse, if someone had no idea, had never heard of these things before, how would you describe them?

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S2: So there’s the idea of the Metaverse. And then there’s what actually exists today, and there’s a lot of debate about the relationship between those two. You’ll get people who say, Oh, we’re the Metaverse is so far off. It might never happen. And then you’ll get people who say, Oh, what we have today really is it is a Metaverse. It’s just, you know, in development. The idea the Metaverse comes from this 1992 sci fi novel, Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. And in it, there’s this sort of second parallel online reality a parallel world with cities and roads and streets and people and nightclubs and business meetings. There’s a very similar idea in Ready Player One, you know, more recent novel and movie that people might be familiar with. But it’s basically an online world where there is a physical space and you move around that space and interact with people. This is like an internet where you are a participant and you can build stuff and everybody else is there to.

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S1: How does Horizon worlds fit into this?

S2: Facebook said in October of last year that it was going to change its whole focus to building the Metaverse. I believe the Metaverse is the next chapter for the internet, and it’s the next chapter for our company too. So I’ve been thinking a lot about what it had to deliver some kind of prototype, some kind of experience that would give people a taste of it.

S1: Welcome to a place of limitless possibilities, a place where you

S2: can invent things. So Horizon Worlds was in beta for many months and volunteers were testing it on December 9th. It launched to the public as an app that anybody with an Oculus headset, which is, I guess, now going to be called a meta headset can access. So for Facebook, this is like their prototype. It’s their first run at what a Metaverse might be like.

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S1: And you’ve been hanging out in it, poking around in it a little bit.

S2: Absolutely. People use it to flirt, to talk business, to just chat about where they are and the weather, to talk about the technology. You can use it ideally and think in Facebook’s vision, you use it to meet up with your friends, right? It links to your Facebook social network, and you and your friends might all get together and play a game of arena clash, which is this sort of laser tag like game. It’s a three on three VR game within Horizon worlds. But for now, I think most people’s friends aren’t on there yet. They don’t have a VR headset. And so there is a lot of just interacting with random strangers and they give you stuff to do. You know, it’s like it’s like a big corporate party. There’s like a game where you can throw a little paper airplanes and have them come back to you, and it’s like little stuff to do while you make small talk with the random other people on VR headsets in different parts of the world, in their basements or living rooms.

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S1: This whole experience and bearing in mind, it’s very new, but this is supposed to be for adults.

S2: Yeah, so Horizon Worlds is rated 18 plus the Oculus device itself is rated for ages 13 and up, so you pretty much have to be 13 to buy and start using one of these things. But once you’ve got it, I mean, anybody else can put it on and walk around in your avatar or make their own avatar and use the apps,

S1: which is probably what happened when Wil encountered that little voice in Horizon worlds. That person who said they were nine Will wrote a story about that experience, pointing out that kids seem to have invaded this supposedly adult world with no trouble. I spent some time after reading your reporting, looking at reviews on the Oculus website, and one thing that comes up over and over again is kids, one person saying, I had such high hopes for this. Of the four to five times I’ve tried to explore this app, I’ve been told by kids every single time and link. Some of these are a little bit funny, the idea of someone who is there trying to make chitchat surrounded by screaming children. But it’s also pretty unnerving.

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S2: Yeah, this is a problem in a lot of digital worlds where you can chat with strangers in one form or another. So, you know, it’s a problem in games like Call of Duty, right? You’ll be like trying to organize this military operation. They’ll be this like, you know, high pitched voice on there, you know, yelling profanity like kid, get out of their face. Do your parents know what you’re doing? Well, it’s a problem. Predictably, in horizon worlds as well, they can be very annoying. I mean, they have it’s not their Facebook account, right? I assume they’re on the Facebook account of a parent or an older brother who probably doesn’t know what they’re doing. And their kids are very exploratory, you know? They love to know what the latest tech is and try it out. And you know, to them, it’s like, Oh, there’s no parents here, no teachers, no rules. They can go. And and it’s fun. I assume it certainly does disrupt the experience of adults who are trying to use it.

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S1: But there’s a darker side to all of this. It’s incredibly upsetting to contemplate, but online platforms where kids hang out are notorious for attracting child predators.

S2: We do not know if there are predators already there, but all the experts I talked to said you can pretty much assume one of them said, Look, when there’s a new platform, an online platform that emerges that lets strangers talk to each other. Two groups are sure to be on there among the early adopters, one is little kids and one is sexual predators because they know there will be little kids and they know that in a new environment, it’s often not well moderated and they can get away with stuff.

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S1: You also noted that Roblox or Minecraft, they have taken some steps to try to limit grooming, like turning off chat features and things like that. I wonder what those activists and researchers who you talked to said works to try to keep the stuff off a virtual world.

S2: I think the industry is still trying to figure out what works. It’s clear that this is not a small problem, it’s a big problem. You know, so much of so many aspects of life have moved increasingly online over the years, accelerated by the pandemic and. I hate to say this, but it seems like sexual predation has to, I mean, this is, you know, online is a primary way now that sexual predators find their targets. There are a lot of advantages for them, and then they can disguise often their age, their gender, their identity. They can reach out to kids on platforms, often without being observed by others. Most of the online platforms are playing catch up, and you mentioned a couple Minecraft, which is owned by Microsoft and Roblox. They’re not VR, but they do have a sort of Metaverse element where you can interact with with strangers and randos. And also you can build your own experiences. You can build your own things within the world. And so there are similarities there. They have partnered with a non-profit to make to try to build these tools that can automatically detect signs of maybe child grooming. They’re in their early stages, but there a clear effort there. So far, Facebook doesn’t seem to be doing anything like that. They’re kind of, I don’t want to say, hiding behind. I mean, they’re they’re holding up the fact that this is not supposed to be for kids. And so they haven’t built any tools to protect kids.

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S1: Maybe I’m very jaded, but I listen to you talking about potential child grooming. And then also, there have been reports that adults are sexually harassing one another in horizon worlds. This feels predictable. This doesn’t feel surprising, and it makes me wonder if Facebook was just unprepared.

S2: When it rebranded as Metta and said that its new focus is to build the Metaverse, Facebook said, we’ve learned some lessons along the way. We’re going to do this with with safety in mind. We’re going to build this from the start in a way that gives people the tools they need to feel safe on here. And I think they’ve partly delivered on that. There’s a tool in Horizon World’s called Safe Zone while you’re in the app, but any time you lift your wrist, I’m talking like, you know, physically in the real world, you lift your wrist up toward your face and then your avatar does the same in the game. And then there’s sort of a virtual wristwatch on there and you press, you use your other finger and press a button and that brings up the mute tool and the block tool and the report tool. And there is an option to record and send a recording of what you’re seeing along with your report to kind of back it up as evidence. In fact, Facebook does some recording automatically records the last couple of minutes of your experience on sort of a rolling tape and deletes, you know, every two or three minutes or whatever the amount of time

S1: is like an airplane black box.

S2: Yeah, I like that. I guess. I mean, so that they can go back and check the tape. So they’ve done some clever things there. I think it is still fair to point out that. There is very little human moderation, there’s very little human oversight in general, I mean, the model of connecting the world. Is really only profitable if you don’t have to also police it with humans in real time. So Facebook has really focused on moderation tools that the delegate that power to the individual user to keep yourself safe.

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S1: Well, this seems to become more and more important because Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook matter are staking so much on this that they are saying this thing both horizon worlds. But really, the Metaverse more broadly are the future of our company, and it it just makes me wonder. How important is this to the pivot, is this the whole ballgame?

S2: I think it depends how seriously you take Facebook’s pivot. There are a lot of people who think that changing its name to Metta and saying it was going to build the Metaverse was really a marketing move. It was a PR move. I mean, first of all, they’re distancing themselves from the brand Facebook, which has become pretty fraught and not broadly trusted anymore. They are signaling to engineers that you can come here and do something exciting, something science fiction like build the next internet at a time when they were having trouble recruiting engineers to come and, like, fix the world’s biggest and most problematic social networks. You know, Mark Zuckerberg, you can say a lot of things about him as a leader. One thing that I think has been extremely consistent about Zuckerberg is that he’s always looking into the future. Like, What’s the threat like two hills ahead, right? What’s what’s the thing that could come along in five years and crush Facebook? And he’s always trying to stay a step ahead of that. So I think there is some sincerity in the goal of trying to build the new thing before somebody else does build the thing that disrupts social networks before somebody else disrupts Facebook.

S1: That said, Facebook may have changed its name, but the Metaverse that you can taste in horizons still feels like it’s on the horizon. The VR division is bleeding cash.

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S2: It’s losing money hand over foot. The more they invest, the more they lose. And the amount of revenue they’re bringing in is just a drop in the bucket compared to their existing social platforms. So I think it’s really an open question how you know, how true is it that this is the future of Facebook, let alone the future of the internet?

S1: When we come back. Facebook has a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. Last week, Facebook or Meta, released its fourth quarter earnings report and investor guidance for the next year, and investors did not like what they saw. Earnings were lower than expected, but what really raised eyebrows was a press release that showed that Facebook’s core social network was losing active users for the first time ever. When you read that release, what did you think?

S2: It made my jaw drop? I mean, it’s, you know, it’s not. It’s not shocking that it would happen eventually and let me back up a second and be precise about where they lost users. So the Facebook app, the social network facebook.com, the blue app on your phone. Had fewer people logging in every day in the last three months of 2021 than it did the three months before that. Now that’s the first time that’s ever happened because Facebook has just been on this rocket ride of growth from the moment it launched

S1: and it prioritized over everything else.

S2: It absolutely did, and they were open about it. There was a famous memo from one of the company executives, Andrew Bosworth bars in 2016. The memo was titled titled The Ugly, and it was this internal memo about how growth is what Facebook is all about. And that and that, you know, connecting the world is it’s it’s their prime directive.

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S1: Consequences be damned.

S2: Yeah, that was that was it was the ugly part, right, who said, you know, it means that people will probably use our platforms to do harm. People will die on our platforms and still we’re going to connect people because that’s what we do. We’re going to connect everybody. And they did. I mean, they damn near connected. I mean, they got to they’re up to about three billion monthly users and they they are just shy of two billion every day. I mean, that’s that’s a staggering amount of people, especially considering they’re not even in China. But the fact that for the first time they’re no longer connecting more people is absolutely a turning point in the history of Facebook.

S1: I guess you’re making me wonder if this pivot, if we’re going to believe it. To the Metaverse is because they have to because they need a new trick.

S2: I think it is. I think you’re exactly right. I mean, I think they were still growing. They are still growing as a company, but I think they saw that the growth of social media. Was going to hit a ceiling at some point sooner or later, and they needed a long game, and you can kind of think it did not the first company to do this. I mean, think of Google Alphabet. They’ve got this massive search engine that continues making more and more money for them all the time. And this suite of Google products and YouTube, and that’s propping up their ad business. But they’ve for many, many years have been looking toward a longer term future and doing stuff like self-driving cars, like health technology that’s going to make us live forever. These moonshot says, as Google used to call them. Yet this is Facebook’s moonshot, but it’s a little different because Google did those from a position of strength. Facebook is in a different position now where they’re they’re getting close. They may be approaching their ceiling, and so they’re having to bet much harder on one moonshot.

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S1: To tie all these things together, I was thinking about your mention of the Oculus purchase. And I just looked it up. It was 2014. That’s a long time ago in tech work, right? So I don’t want to say that Mark Zuckerberg made a bad bet because maybe he was thinking ahead to now, then. And yet when I hear you describe your experience in horizon worlds, when you read user reviews, it still does feel like there’s a tremendous amount of money and corporate reputation staked on something that most generously might be described as in beta.

S2: Yeah, here I should amend something I said earlier. So Horizon Worlds is not the whole bet. Horizon Worlds is Facebook’s attempt to show what a full Metaverse might look like with with user developed games inside it, with the social element where you can interact with strangers.

S1: It’s like a little toe in the water.

S2: Yeah, and I, you know, Facebook Reality Labs, the division that includes the VR stuff, is more than that. I mean, it’s it’s primarily right now as a business, it’s primarily hardware. They sell headsets and they sold a lot of them over Christmas. They were they were the number one downloaded app over the December holidays, and that’s the app that you have to download in order to use the headset. So it’s it’s a signal of how many headsets they’re selling. So they the VR stuff is catching on more than just the horizon worlds. There are other things you can do in there, like the famous, the famous original experience was this roller coaster ride you can take, and it really is wild. I mean, it’s it will make you motion sick.

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S1: Probably. Yeah, I know it made me one of our yes,

S2: unless you have a stomach of steel, but that, I mean, that’s bad. Obviously, it is not fun to buy, but it’s good because it shows how visceral this can become in VR at its best. There are few games that really harness the power of VR, and it is immersive in this really impressive way when you first start out. So there are parts of VR that are slowly springing to life and catching on. But this idea of the Metaverse where we where we have our social lives within VR and where we spend lots of time in there and where it becomes the primary version of the internet that we all use, that’s what feels really far off.

S1: Will Oremus, thank you very much. Thanks, Lizzie. Will Oremus writes technology news analysis for The Washington Post. Before we go, a reminder that we will be back on Sunday with another episode. It’s about an online retailer that is changing how you shop, even if you have never shopped there. All right, that is it for the show today. TBD is produced by Ethan Brooks were edited by Tori Bosch and Jonathan Fisher. Alicia Montgomery is the executive producer for Slate Podcasts. TBD is part of the larger What Next family? And we’re also part of future tense partnership of Slate Arizona State University in New America. And I want to take a moment and recommend that you listen to Thursday’s episode of What Next? It’s an extraordinary conversation with a weaker journalist about what China is not showing you when you watch the Olympics. Have a great weekend. I’m Lizzie O’Leary. Thanks for listening.