Forming social norms in the metaverse

Moderators are on the front lines in developing social norms for the metaverse:

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These norms reveal how moderation is complicated by trying to map the social conventions of the physical world onto virtual reality. If you covered yourself in purple body paint and showed up at an in-person medical conference, you’d probably be asked to leave. At a metaverse medical conference, the other attendees wouldn’t even bat an eye. This relaxing of certain social norms leads people to test the bounds of acceptable behavior, and moderators in some cases have to decide what crosses the line. For instance, new users will often pat strangers on the head, an interaction that would be strange and a little invasive in real life. Educators in VR tries to discourage people from doing this, though it seems to fall into a gray area of rude but not totally offensive. The same goes for pacing excessively around a room, walking through other users, or fidgeting too much with your controllers, which can cause your VR hands to distractingly bounce around. “People don’t get it at first because a lot of people come into VR from a gaming platform, so they don’t fully grasp the fact that behind every avatar is a person,” said Myer. During one of the events I moderated, VanFossen asked me to message an attendee to step back because he was a little too close to the speaker and invading her personal space. I needed the nudge: It’s hard to tell how close is too close in the metaverse. It’s not like you can feel the other person breathe.

To account for these gray areas, Educators in VR calibrates the strictness of the moderation based on the type of event. Parties are a bit more laissez-faire, while group meditation sessions have a zero tolerance policy where you might be removed simply for moving around the room too much. “I was very much against zero tolerance until I started witnessing what that meant,” said VanFossen of meditation events. “People are there for a reason, whether this is their daily thing, they have a crap stressful job, they need a break, or they have mental health issues.” Moderation levels also differ by platform—AltspaceVR tends to be stricter because it’s targeted at professionals, while VRChat is known for anarchy.

It remains to be seen how moderation will work at scale as the metaverse accelerates its expansion. At the moment, developers don’t seem to have a good answer. AltSpaceVR has been trying to put moderation tools into the hands of its users and also has staff on hand to help with particularly volatile situations. Meta has similarly relied on users themselves to block and report troublemakers in Horizon Worlds. Yet if tech companies succeed in their grand ambitions to get billions of people to inhabit the metaverse, maintaining it is going to take an immense amount of time and energy from a countless number of people who have to make tough, nuanced decisions minute by minute. As VanFossen said, “It’s the most disgusting, frustrating, stress-inducing, headache-inducing, mental health–depleting job on the planet.”

Social interactions and spaces require social norms. People appreciate knowing how to act and how they will be treated. Without them, chaos or anarchy or worse ensues

Enforcing social norms is an important matter. In many situations, the norms are communicated and enforced in less explicit or informal ways. People see what is happening and respond similarly or they have a general idea of how to behave. In other situations, the norms need to be explicitly addressed, perhaps through formal guidelines or enforcers who step in when needed.

What sounds unique about the situation discussed above is (1) the social space is relatively new, (2) unfamiliar to a lot of people, and (3) is still in flux because of #1 and #2 plus ongoing changes. The moderators are trying to step in and they are creating the norms as they go. If the metaverse becomes more popular, the norms will solidify as the space and the proper behavior becomes more known.

The coming of the “embodied internet”

Can you have both a physical body and operate in a virtual world? Perhaps so in the coming metaverse:]

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Billionaire Zuckerberg is betting his company’s future on the metaverse but is keen to make it a collaborative project, describing it as an “embodied internet”…

“We believe the metaverse may be the next generation of the internet — combining the physical and digital world in a persistent and immersive manner — and not purely a virtual reality world,” the report says.”

A device-agnostic metaverse accessible via PCs, game consoles, and smartphones could result in a very large ecosystem.”

Some might see the “real world” and “online world” as disconnected realms. I have argued for using “online” and “offline” spheres because I think they are quite connected in terms of social relationships and networks.

The metaverse has the potential to further link realms. The embodied aspect is interesting to consider; how much will the offline body move in sync with the online body? How much further will we move beyond guiding an avatar around an online platform with a mouse or keyboard? And what potential is there to truly meld online and offline experiences at the same time?

I wonder how much this embodiment can happen in the metaverse as compared to other technological options. For example, Google Glass and similar options offered the opportunity to overlay data on top of what a person was seeing and experiencing. Or, Pokemon Go put video game characters in an offline map and reality.

Planning for the metaverse libertarian urban paradise

The quest for a free online city continue with the help of a prominent architectural firm:

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Zaha Hadid Architects (ZHA) has revealed renderings of the “cyber-urban” Liberland metaverse, a small virtual city made of futuristic, curving buildings in the architectural style that made the late architect’s firm famous. When complete, it will offer users the ability to traverse the hub as an avatar, and feature a city hall, collaborative working spaces, shops, business incubators, and a gallery for NFT art shows. The community it hopes to foster will have a focus on self-governance as well as fewer rules and regulations.

Those ideals are based on the so-called Free Republic of Liberland, a real-life micronation founded by Czech politician Vit Jedlicka in 2015 with a goal to implement small government libertarian values. Wedged between Serbia and Croatia, the 2.7-mile territory, which is larger than the Vatican and Monaco, is a disputed land and claimed by neither country. Since its founding, no one has moved to Liberland, which lacks any infrastructure, nor has construction started in earnest. But it does have 7,000 approved residents and 700,000 applications, according to Jedlicka, who told CNN in an email. The micronation also has a national flag, anthem and currency — the cryptocurrency Liberland merit…

Though many metaverse concepts have been born out of video game aesthetics — Mark Zuckerberg’s concept for a Metaverse, for example, looks similar to Nintendo Wii’s avatar design — the digital architecture of Liberland is meant to be more grounded in reality. The buildings, while hyper-futuristic, are similar to the glossy look of typical architectural renderings. But they were made with parametric design — a method that employs algorithms to create complex forms…

But while many online forums and social media companies have had to grapple with how much to moderate their users, with sites like Reddit having to move away from their ideals of unmitigated free speech as their user base ballooned, Liberland will start out as an exclusive space and expand slowly, in order to keep its community in check. Jedlicka confirmed that Liberland citizens and residents will have first access.

This combines several ideas with their own fan bases – the metaverse, libertarianism and small government, this architectural style – and tries to put them together in once place. I wonder if this hints at a fragmented metaverse where people of different interests and community ties come together in a few settings but they do not go elsewhere.

It is also worth noting that while this is only a online place, it is not disconnected from the offline realm in multiple ways. First, the online realm tries to imitate the offline with its use of space, buildings, and architecture. Second, those who operate in the online realm still have physical bodies and interactions outside of Liberland. This will be billed as new and exciting because it is in the metaverse…but physical matter still matters in multiple ways for this new community.

Buying and selling real estate in the metaverse

With Facebook pivoting to the metaverse, real estate activity is picking up in this realm:

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In October, Tokens.com, a blockchain technology company focused on NFTs and metaverse real estate, acquired 50 percent of Metaverse Group, one of the world’s first virtual real estate companies, for about $1.7 million. Metaverse Group is based in Toronto but has virtual headquarters in a world called Decentraland in Crypto Valley, which is the metaverse’s answer to Silicon Valley. Decentraland also has districts for gambling, shopping, fashion and the arts.

“Rather than try to create a universe like Facebook, I said, ‘Why don’t we go in and buy the parcels of land in these metaverses, and then we can become the landlords?” said Andrew Kiguel, a co-founder and the chief executive of Tokens.com…

For those wondering why a company would want to invest in a virtual office in the metaverse, Michael Gord, a co-founder of the Metaverse Group, said that skeptics should look at the trends catalyzed by the pandemic…

The Metaverse Group has a real estate investment trust and it plans to build a portfolio of properties in Decentraland as well as other realms including Somnium Space, Sandbox and Upland. The internet may be infinite, but virtual real estate is not — Decentraland, for example, is 90,000 parcels of land, each roughly 50 feet by 50 feet. Among investors, there’s a sense that there’s gold in those pixelated hills, Mr. Gord said.

Let the artificially-induced-scarcity-fueled-boom begin!

Seriously though, this offers an opportunity to acquire real estate that otherwise might be very difficult to find online or offline. In the offline world, how often do significant new parcels of land or developments come available? If they can be bought, they are not cheap, they probably attract a lot of interest, and there might be restrictions based on what is already there or what is possible on the site. In the online world, it could be difficult to predict where users might show up, how long it could take for sites to develop, and what it all might be worth?

In the meantime, investors and speculators will wait and see what happens. The bet could pay off massively: if the metaverse is successful with a few years or even a decade or two, those who got in early in prime locations with the right offerings could gain a lot. And if the metaverse does not develop in this way or other factors go awry, the money lost will be in a long line of those who hoped for the best with property and nothing materialized.