from ghosts on the machine department
Content moderation in virtual reality includes its own challenges. What works for text and video moderation does not properly translate into virtual reality. In late June, Facebook’s Horizon, a virtual reality social space conducted in beta testing, released an update to prevent its blocking feature from creating ghosts. It may sound hyperbolic, but it’s a perfectly adequate description of the effect of the feature on Horizon before the upgrade. In the previous version, both the blocker and the blocker were made invisible to each other, but allowed to continue interacting with the same virtual world. Although they could not be seen, the effects of the other in their shared environment were seen. If someone blocked you, your obscene gestures might be invisible to them, but you could still move furniture and make rattle chains, virtually becoming poltergeist.
Horizon lock improvements
We are beginning to make changes to the operation of the lock on Horizon. These changes are based on people’s feedback and are designed to enhance people’s experience and make Horizon a safer and more welcoming place.
Previously, when you blocked someone on Horizon, both you and the person you were blocking became invisible to each other. We heard comments from people that this was confusing, for example, when the other person continued to interact with objects in the same space.
Now, both the person who has been blocked and the person who has blocked them will be able to see the other person’s username tag, while keeping their avatars invisible. This update lets both people know that they are present, but that they are blocked and silenced.
You’ll also be able to see the people you’ve blocked from the menu (such as the Nearby people list) instead of being completely hidden. This means you can see who you have blocked without having to interact with them. You can also visit the settings page and see a list of blocks, where you can see the people you’ve blocked and choose to unlock them if you want.
As the patch notes explain, when used in VR, the traditional approach to blocking caused unwanted problems. Unlike static social media profiles, users embody their avatars. The digital representation of the user mimics their movements and gestures as they move through a shared virtual world. On traditional social media, blocking another user hides your voice from their vision and limits their responsiveness. Hiding your avatar from your vision is a logical translation of this policy into virtual reality. However, because invisible, blocked blocking still shares the same virtual world, a malicious user could block someone from chasing or spying on them without observing them. Blocking the voice tagging of blocked users would be unnecessary on traditional social media, as their voice is already excluded from blocker conversations. However, in a shared virtual environment, it becomes a necessary component of a useful lock function.
While they are far from life-threatening abuses, they illustrate why best practices for moderating traditional content are not always easily applied to virtual reality. In many ways, Facebook Horizon’s moderation challenges are more like those of a video game, especially a massively multiplayer online game (MMO), than those of a traditional social network. In both cases, players interact through avatars and can simultaneously affect the virtual world itself. Whether in a game or in a shared VR world, the properties of the digital environment govern the interactions of players as much, if not more, on the rules about players ’speech. This often introduces trade-offs between measures against harassment and realism or interactivity. If a game model is fired realistically, a malicious player could throw a bonfire at another’s tent and set it on fire. This can be avoided by limiting the ability of players to interact with the fire (preventing them from kicking it), or the properties of the fire (preventing it from burning the tent). The environmental design options for games or virtual reality are somewhat similar to the architectural options of traditional platforms, either to create retweet or quote functions or to allow users to control who can respond to their tweets. However, creating an interactive virtual world requires making many more of these decisions.
MMOs are classified as “theme park” or “sandbox” games. In the former, designers set fixed goals for players to compete or cooperate, justifying governance as a referee. The latter offers players a set of tools and expects them to have fun, limiting the need for intercession on the part of designers. Conflict between players with different goals is an expected part of the fun.
While platforms for weaving patterns or neighborhood conversations have purposes that recommend some rules over others, more open platforms have struggled to justify their rules. YouTube is a home of video content. What video content? Who says that? At the moment, the RV is mainly used for games. However, as the social and commercial applications of technology become more popular, this issue of purpose will become politically relevant, as it has been for YouTube.
Horizon’s core product is a framework for users to create their own virtual worlds. Horizon does not exist to provide an environment designed by Facebook, but to offer users the ability to create their own environments. This provides Horizon with a guiding purpose and relieves its designers of the pressure to make one-size-fits-all decisions. Because most Horizon worlds are created by users, those users can set interactivity rules. Facebook has neither the time nor the resources to govern the behavior and use of all virtual tennis rackets across a myriad of virtual spaces. However, the creators of these little worlds know if they are creating a virtual tennis club or a fighting game for garden parties and can set the rules of the environment accordingly. This won’t be the first time Facebook finds that a rule that works for text and video publishing platforms falls into virtual reality. However, its response to the unwanted effects of the block feature shows a willingness to appreciate the new demands of the medium.
Will Duffield is a policy analyst at the Cato Institute
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Filed under: blogs, content moderation, ghosts, oculus, virtual reality, vr