#371: Online Harassment in Virtual Spaces

Suzanne-LeibrickDuring Google’s Daydream Labs presentation at Google I/O, they discussed how to deal with different types of trolling behaviors. Suzanne Leibrick is a VR user interface and user experience designer, who has experienced different types of online harassment within virtual spaces. As a response to this, she wrote up a number of different suggestions in a post titled Social VR solutions. I had a chance to catch up with her at Google I/O to talk about some of these technical solutions, as well as how to create more open and welcoming social VR spaces.


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Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.452] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. My name is Kent Bye, and welcome to The Voices of VR Podcast. On today's episode, I talk to Suzanne Liebrich, who is a user experience and user interface designer for virtual reality, as well as one of the co-founders of the ARVR Women's Meetup in San Francisco. So I talked to Suzanne about online harassment and virtual reality and what that looks like. So from Suzanne's experience, she's experienced a variety of different types of harassment online in virtual spaces. And so we take a look at some of the trolling and harassment behavior that's happening in some of the social VR spaces, as well as some of her proposed technological solutions to make harassment more difficult, like setting up personal spaces and reputation systems. But also, just in general, what to do to create a more safe and welcoming environment for everybody experiencing social VR for the first time. So that's what we'll be covering on today's episode of the Voices of VR podcast. But first, a quick word from our sponsor. Today's episode is brought to you by the Virtual World Society. The Virtual World Society wants to use VR to change the world. So they are interested in bridging the gap between communities in need with researchers, with creative communities, as well with community of providers who could help deliver these VR experiences to the communities. If you're interested in getting more involved in virtual reality and want to help make a difference in the world, then sign up at virtualworldsociety.org and start to get more involved. Check out the Virtual World Society booth at the Augmented World Expo, June 1st and 2nd. So this interview happened on May 19th at the Google I-O conference in Mountain View, California, where Suzanne was there as an attendee, where she was creating some art, putting some stickers on a cargo container. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.

[00:01:57.812] Suzanne Leibrick: My name is Suzanne Liebrich and I co-run the AR VR Women Meetup Group and we also started a VR Academy to teach women VR development. And then personally I do UI, UX, 3D design and other non-development aspects of VR development.

[00:02:14.622] Kent Bye: So there was a talk today, which was an amazing talk, probably one of the best VR talks that I've seen in a long, long time, from the Daydream Labs' big VR design insights from all the 60 different prototypes that they made over the course of 30 weeks. And so they had a specific section in there in social VR, and specifically about trolls and trolling and harassment. So this is something that I understand you've done a little bit of writing about. So what are your thoughts on that?

[00:02:39.138] Suzanne Leibrick: So I think social VR, I look at it as something that is really important, especially coming as a woman who has lived on the internet for a while. I've experienced harassment. I know many other women out there have. And for me, the thing about social VR is I don't want a woman's first or anybody's first experience in social VR to be one that's negative, where they're feeling harassed, where their personal space is invaded, or they have people stalking them. I've had experiences where within 30 seconds of being in VR, in a social room, in a female avatar, before I even talk, I'm being harassed. I have people in my face making rude gestures, following me around, sort of teleport stalking me. So this is something like I don't want other people to experience this as their first VR experience because what you're going to end up have happening is You put somebody into social VR, that's their first experience. They're going to take off that headset, put it down, and never go into social VR again. And I want social to be something that everybody can feel like is their space, is somewhere where they can be safe. So I actually started writing about potential design solutions. for how you get around these problems, how you allow a user to set their own comfort boundaries. So one of my ideas was to have personal bubbles in any social VR application where you can set what your own personal boundary is. And if somebody crosses that personal boundary, they become invisible to you, you become invisible to them, and no longer have to interact with them. There's a lot of benefits to something like this. For example, if you're attending a comedy event in VR and it's a crowded space. You don't have to feel crowded. Your system doesn't have the overload of having to render too many avatars and various other things like that. And also, you then have the option of people not being in your geometry. The thing that I've noticed is that sometimes people tell me, you know, well, it doesn't bother me when somebody is really close to me in my face because I know that they're not there. If they're breaking my personal boundaries, you know, it's VR. They're not real. The response I have to that is if you've ever stood on a cliff in VR or you've ever walked through a wall in VR, you experience this moment where you have to remember where the real world is and you lose the immersion because it feels real to you. Having somebody break your personal boundaries and harass you in VR feels real to you. So if you have something like that happen, it can feel very intimidating, very harassing, and we need to design around that and design ways to make people comfortable.

[00:05:19.937] Kent Bye: Yeah, in the talk they had at least one example of what they were trying to do in terms of ensuring that there was fair play in this poker game that they had, which was that if you're in a vibe and you try to stand up and move beyond your kind of space that you're supposed to be at, the whole scene would go dead gray for that person. and they would disappear. And both their avatar to themselves, but also to other people, they would just evaporate. So it's sort of like this way that if you start to violate the logic that's set forth by the VR designer and developer, then you basically disappear and no one can see you anymore.

[00:05:53.261] Suzanne Leibrick: Yeah, absolutely. That's a great way to handle that problem. In the real world, we don't have any way, really, of enforcing social norms. In VR, we do. We have ways that we can build in as designers and developers to make people follow rules or to allow me to be safe in the VR space in a way that feels comfortable to me and allow you to have an experience that's comfortable to you. Our boundaries are probably different in different situations, so it would be great if we build granular controls on the user side that are intuitive, easy to use, and give you your own comfort level, not what somebody else wants to set for you. So you can set your own boundaries, which you can't do in the real world. That's a real advantage to VR. But if we don't do that, we run the risk of alienating people. We run the risk of making toxic spaces or places where people can cheat in their poker games or various other really negative things that nobody really wants to experience.

[00:06:54.540] Kent Bye: Could you describe for me a little bit more in terms of what specifically happened in a virtual reality experience that you kind of felt like that was harassment because I'm just curious to see like what are the different things that are specific to VR and what is kind of like universal just harassment?

[00:07:11.695] Suzanne Leibrick: So definitely personal space invasion is one. In very short periods of time if I'm wearing a female avatar in a social environment I've had people come up to where their geometry is colliding with my face. So I'm literally looking through their polygons and trying to interact with the world. And then maybe I move away and I teleport away and then that person follows me and continues to stalk me repeatedly around a space. And that starts to feel very harassing because I can't interact with the world when you're interrupting me constantly. And their audio cuts in over your audio. Or maybe instead of you and I having a conversation here, if we're doing this in VR, somebody starts to teleport in between us and talk over us. And the conversation I want to have, I can no longer have. I've had that happen more than once. I've also had friends who tested out my theories too. to see what their experiences were wearing a female avatar. I had somebody who videotaped an interaction where another user was following around all of the women in the space making obscene gestures in their faces using a leap motion. So these are all things that feel really uncomfortable. Maybe one experience is not enough to turn you off VR forever, It was so consistent, like within 30 minutes almost every social VR experience I've had there was at least one incident of somebody saying something inappropriate to me that made me feel uncomfortable or somebody acting in such a way that their physical space was threatening mine.

[00:08:49.002] Kent Bye: Yeah, and do you think that anonymity is part of the issue as well? Is that VR is so early that there's no real consequence of just changing avatar names or... It's not exactly tied to your direct identity, so there's a little bit of like, you can get away with a lot more when you can't see someone's face. Or when you don't know what their real identity is.

[00:09:11.508] Suzanne Leibrick: Sure, absolutely. I mean, this is a problem that the Internet has had pretty much since there were any ways to interact with people. It's very hard to moderate because people can change IP addresses, they can change equipment, they can change and be a different person. So there are no real world consequences for their actions. That's why I was leaning towards user controls rather than external moderation. It's all very well if I block or mute you, but then you could log off, come back on a different platform and still keep harassing me. If I can set my personal comfort levels and my personal boundaries in such a way that you can no longer harass me, then there's no burden on the developers to create a robust banning system or ignoring system or reporting system because it's not going to bother me anymore. I've set my own comfort levels and you cannot break those boundaries. So, I mean, obviously, this is not the best solution ever, but generally speaking, moderation is very expensive. For really effective personal moderation, you need to employ people who monitor rooms and monitor bad behavior. Blocking is not effective because, again, people can circumvent that kind of thing. So we really have to think consciously about designing in such a way that those things no longer become an issue.

[00:10:30.825] Kent Bye: Yeah, because there's a thing where a lot of times blocking people can come down to an IP address, which is not necessarily something that is fixed, or people can get around that by spoofing it or using Tor or some sort of anonymizer. So it sounds like some of these other solutions, like having a personal bubble, would help address that. And so would you imagine that if somebody is in a virtual space and they start to violate your personal bubble, that you would give them a little bit of a warning, like a chaperone sort of grid system, and then they would maybe have that person disappear? Or how would you imagine giving some sort of indication for people to kind of make it sure that they knew that the boundary was there without having the side effect of perhaps breaking immersion?

[00:11:14.765] Suzanne Leibrick: Yeah, I mean, that's a great idea, having maybe like a glowing chaperone bubble appear right before you cross through somebody's boundary. And it would be a nice system if it's as seamless as possible. So I don't think it's going to break immersion too badly to have somebody just pop out when they get too close to you. I think that's a much more comfortable experience than the opposite. But yeah, I think having warning systems, you know, these are just suggestions and ways to sort of think about this problem and around this problem so that we can design for the future. But yeah, I mean, maybe even haptic feedback. So you're not breaking immersion. You're just kind of giving a vibration to hand controllers or something like that that says, oh, you just collided with my bubble. Maybe back off.

[00:12:01.663] Kent Bye: Yeah and one of the trolling behaviors that they showed in the video was you're in this shop and two avatars are kind of putting different hats on each other and one person decides to just stick the hat in the other person's face and then they can't see anything at all and it seemed like the person was getting really agitated to the point where you know it's very likely that they would just rip off the headset and so When we think about different things that we have to prevent, how do you prevent somebody from doing that? Or is this an issue that has a technological solution, or is this something that we just have to evolve the culture, and then if people aren't abiding by these rules, then they do get banned somehow?

[00:12:40.348] Suzanne Leibrick: So in the real world, we have social constructs that govern our behavior. So in most cases, nobody that you meet is going to come up to you on the street and stick a hat over your face. like generally speaking, and if that happens, there are consequences, there are legal consequences, you know, that would be harassment or battery or something like that. I think it's possible to build technological solutions that redefine our social conventions inside VR. I think it's easily possible to prevent that kind of behavior by thinking about what we are allowing our constraints to be technologically. So I do think it's possible to sort of build a social convention inside VR that we enforce and deliberately design technologically.

[00:13:27.085] Kent Bye: Yeah, and on different social media websites like Twitter, Facebook, when you block somebody, what happens is that they disappear mutually to each other. And so sometimes if there'll be a conversation, there'll just be a gap and people will be able to hear the context that's around it, but they may not necessarily always know whether or not they have actually been blocked or not. And I imagine a situation where it's in VR, where it's going to be a lot more explicit and clear that you're standing in a circle, and there's other people that are directionally looking at and speaking into, but there's just going to be this ghost. I think it's going to be a little bit different feeling. Do you have any specific thoughts about how it's different to block somebody in VR versus in the 2D information age web?

[00:14:14.082] Suzanne Leibrick: Yeah, that's a great point. It is different. You are going to experience something like that. I know one of the things that I experienced was somebody was bothering me with an alt space, and there's a solution when you block somebody. is that for you, that avatar freezes in place, but you're still present for that other person. And other users in the room actually told me that this person was still following me around and still harassing me, even though I could no longer hear him or see him. So that was really interesting to me because then, you know, there's all the potential for maybe somebody continuing to act that way. And when your avatar starts to look more like you, then maybe there's a potential that could video you and all of these other things. So how do you design around that? That's not something that is an easy thing to deal with for sure. I think it's going to be something that maybe we get used to, the idea that there can be these ghosts that you're not seeing and hearing. But yeah, it's very difficult to solve for multiple users when maybe that one person's offending me, but you guys are leaving them be. And there's also the problem of You know, even just a simple mechanic where you're trying to click on somebody to ignore them and ban them, but they're moving around really quickly. That's a kind of a difficult problem too. That definitely breaks immersion where you're trying, somebody's harassing you and you're suddenly having to try catch them just to be able to click ignore or click block.

[00:15:41.902] Kent Bye: So wait, so explain that a little bit. Like someone may harass you and then start to run off. You've had that happen or?

[00:15:47.732] Suzanne Leibrick: Yeah, like maybe they're teleporting around the space or you're teleporting because you're trying to run away from them or they're in a room scale system so they're walking around the space. So, yeah, even just trying to click on somebody to ignore them because we're used to the paradigm of having somebody's name that we can just, you know, click on in a web interface and hit block or within a game, you know, type slash ignore whoever, ignore Kent. In VR, that's different because there's a lot fewer UI elements for things like that. So the solutions that I've seen do often involve having to click on somebody. So I think there's other ways to get around that. For example, allowing the user to temporarily snapshot their screen, so everybody in your scene freezes for you, but you can still interact. with somebody's model to do something like ignore or even to friend somebody or perhaps you just want to take a snapshot of a scene or something like that. So there's different uses for a system that would also give you like that kind of functionality.

[00:16:51.286] Kent Bye: Well, as you're saying that, I could just imagine that it's not too far-fetched to have somebody kind of do a hit-and-run, and then there aren't that many different avatar types in AltSpace or other social VR programs right now, so there could very well be somebody that has the exact same avatar that is in that same area, and you may end up blocking the wrong person, which begs the question of like, what do you do? to resolve that if it's an accident, or maybe they made a mistake and they want to actually change in some way. But what is the process to, after accidentally blocking somebody, how do you reverse that?

[00:17:28.364] Suzanne Leibrick: Good question. Really, because you don't have a list of users. On Facebook, you can go see who you've blocked. So maybe there's some way to access that in some UI element. But again, you run the risk of breaking emotion. The thing that I really want to get across is that all of these solutions need to be things that are very easy UX on the person being harassed. Like, I shouldn't have to have a negative experience just to try and block someone. I shouldn't have to try really hard to get somebody banned. It should be as easy as, I just don't want to interact with this person. Goodbye. Yeah, you know, I do want to interact with this person. How do I unblock somebody? There's also ideas around things like reputation, where I can add somebody to a trusted circle and somebody to an untrusted circle and then everybody else is just in a kind of grey zone. So maybe people in my trusted circle can break my personal bubble. I can hear them more clearly, like their audio levels are by default higher than the average person, and then people in my untrusted circle, maybe I never see them, maybe I never hear them, maybe they're just kept at a really long distance from me personally, so I maybe don't break the immersion, but I don't necessarily see them, or if I hear them, they're only quiet, so I don't have to really pay attention. So there's all kinds of options to design around these things, but it is something that we do need to think about.

[00:18:55.115] Kent Bye: Now when you mention the possibility of having a set of preferences for a user to set in order to determine what their personal boundaries are in these virtual spaces, what would some of those options be?

[00:19:08.388] Suzanne Leibrick: So like distance from self, like perceived distance. So for most of us, an arm's length is a very comfortable distance in a fairly open social space. Our boundaries do change. If we're in a crowd, we're much more comfortable being close to strangers. Some people don't have any real boundaries at all when it comes to personal space. Some people, you know, want never to be within four feet of you. So even just something as simple as a slider that lets you kind of set where your bubble lives, like how far from you it is. Something like that would be a pretty simple UI and a pretty great experience, just in terms of granularity and being able to control your own comfort level.

[00:19:47.386] Kent Bye: Do you have any personal favorite stories or anecdotes of being in social VR?

[00:19:53.462] Suzanne Leibrick: I have a lot of really great experiences playing some games really badly in social VR. I've tried out disc golf in all space. Have you tried that? No. So you're throwing a frisbee and you're trying to get through these sort of multi-level corridors and environments upstairs and through you know, like fans and turbines. So I've had some really great fun experiences playing games with other people in a social way, where the game is not so much the focus, it's just an activity that you can kind of use to get to know strangers in VR. Things like that are really a great positive experience. So I'm definitely not negative about social VR. I think it's amazing. I think there's so much potential. So many great ways to be able to meet people you don't know and talk to strangers from across the world in a way that you currently cannot. You cannot have the experience of standing in front of somebody and seeing their mannerisms and hearing their inflections in their voice where you're talking to strangers. Most of the time when we're doing voice chat, we're talking to people we know. If we're doing video chat, we're definitely talking to people we know. We very rarely are talking to just some random stranger who lives in Egypt or who lives in China or lives in Australia, wherever. So I think there's a great potential in social VR to sort of eliminate national boundaries and social boundaries and things that are constructs of how we live. VR doesn't have those constructs. So I'm really positive about it. I just want to make sure that other people don't ruin it for everybody else.

[00:21:29.055] Kent Bye: So what can you tell me about the AR VR women meetup group?

[00:21:33.198] Suzanne Leibrick: So AR VR women is all about gender parity in the industry in five years. So VR is a new industry. Now is the opportunity to get as many women as we can in on the ground floor because nobody knows anything right now. VR is wide open. Whenever you talk to people about VR, nobody really knows what all the solutions are. Nobody really knows what all the problems are. I think in order to make VR really compelling, we need very diverse opinions. We need everybody in the world to create this technology that's going to affect the whole world, in my opinion. So what we're aiming to do is gender parity in five years. So we started a school to educate women in VR development. So we just finished our first set of classes. We taught six classes. of about three hours a piece. We're sponsored by Unity and Liv Erickson is our instructor so she taught all of these women VR development in six weeks. People who had never touched Unity before, who'd never never built things for even a game and we took people with business and marketing backgrounds and a variety of different skill sets and empowered them that yeah, VR development is not that hard. It's something you can try and play around with and you have a unique perspective because as one of the speakers earlier said today the camera is a person in VR so as a creator you're a person and you're creating something that literally lets somebody else stand where you stand so we all have different stories to tell so What we're really trying to do is increase the visibility of women in VR. Have more women on panels. There are women out there doing amazing things. Our last speaker series we had Stephanie Liu from Oculus Hardware. She was talking about the different challenges around creating VR headsets and different other VR hardware problems. We also had Kat Harris from Microsoft who was talking about using the Kinect to show us how to do motion sensing in VR and she works at Microsoft on their VR gaming team. So there are amazing women out there that maybe aren't getting as many opportunities to speak. I've seen many other VR events and VR conferences and panels where you see there's a panel and it's six guys all talking about VR. And they're talking about how we're trying to create content for the whole world. But if you're only representing 50% of the world on your panel, how can you show people really a diverse perspective? So that's our mission.

[00:24:07.963] Kent Bye: Great. And finally, what do you see as kind of the ultimate potential of virtual reality and what it might be able to enable?

[00:24:16.080] Suzanne Leibrick: I think beyond entertainment, you have so many different fields that some people are starting to experiment with things like education and health care. You know, the fact that VR experiences can allow somebody who's in pain to use fewer pain meds, for example, or people who are maybe experiencing depression or anxiety to work through problems in a really safe way and affect how they interact with the real world. So there's so much potential. to create things that affect people's lives. I saw a talk by somebody who'd created the VR experience Clouds Over Sidra for the UN and they were talking about how showing somebody a seven-minute VR documentary about a refugee camp increased donations to the UN by something like 50% because it's so much more personal and it definitely has the impact to change the world in ways that we It's impossible to predict right now, honestly, but I see great things coming in the future.

[00:25:16.570] Kent Bye: So anything else that's left unsaid that you'd like to say?

[00:25:21.237] Suzanne Leibrick: Go out there, create VR experiences, especially if you're a woman.

[00:25:26.044] Kent Bye: All right. Well, thank you so much.

[00:25:27.666] Suzanne Leibrick: Thank you.

[00:25:29.240] Kent Bye: So that was Suzanne Liebrich. She's a user interface and user experience designer, as well as one of the co-founders of the ARVR Women's Meetup. So a number of different takeaways from this podcast is that, first of all, as a white cisgendered male, I haven't experienced any online harassment in social spaces in all the different places that I've gone so far. And so it's a little disturbing to me to hear about what type of harassing behavior is already happening within virtual spaces. And so there are certainly technological solutions that are possible. And I very much encourage you to go check out Suzanne's article that she wrote about it. I'm sure that they will come up with different technological solutions to handle this. And I think that there's a certain dynamic that I want to point out here. Some of these features that are talked about in terms of really creating a welcome and safe space for everybody, I think it doesn't always hit the top of the priority list. Just in talking to different social VR developers, they're really trying to listen to the community and implement the different features that are really being called forth. But I think some of these issues with blocking somebody's view, obstructing it, having personal bubbles that people can set specific distances, I think these may not be at the top of the list of a lot of the social VR spaces, but I actually think it's pretty important to start to create these safe environments so that we don't create the situation where it's just kind of like a boys club where only men feel like they're truly welcome. I think it's really important to listen to these perspectives and to really try to empathize with what it might be like to go into these environments and start to get harassed in these different ways. You know, on the 2D internet, it's pretty easy to find who's being disruptive or doing a little bit of trolling behavior. And it's pretty easy to block them on specific sites because their identity is tied to their comments. And so it's just a click away. But, you know, just to hear about how there's a little bit of like this hit and run type of dynamic where in these 3D social spaces you could be harassing and then start to teleport off or just disappear and it's a lot more ephemeral and a little bit more concerning in terms of how to actually deal with this type of behavior if you have to try to then turn into this other game where you have to chase after people to try to find them and then block them. So, I think there's certainly going to be technological solutions, but I would just call forth for people in social spaces to really become allies, especially if you see harassing behaviors, to really step in and to help, from a cultural perspective, create an environment and a culture where we just don't really want to accept that type of behavior, and to help track down people and to report them. And so another component here is that online 2D conversations where if you have somebody who's blocked you on Facebook then they just kind of turn into a ghost and some people may be reacting to them and replying to them and sometimes you see those replies and sometimes you don't but Imagine if you're in a social space and somebody has blocked you in that way, then it can kind of create these really weird situations that we're going to have where everybody's going to be looking at where nobody is standing if you're blocked by a certain person, and you're going to hear contextual information around it. Maybe other people will start addressing you, but yet there's this kind of really strange situation where, in a physical world, we can't delete somebody out of our existence so easily as we could in VR. And so when we do that, I think it's going to be some really interesting kind of behaviors that, even if you do end up blocking people, unless everybody's blocked them in your immediate peer group, then they still have the potential to be disruptive in certain ways. I think it's just going to be both a technological and a cultural solution where it's going to take some tools and software to empower people to be able to control the type of interactions that they will have in VR. But also there's going to be just some responsibility to have a certain level of quality of interactions within these different virtual spaces. So just keep that in mind as you're going into these different virtual spaces and really remember this interview in particular in terms of what it might be like to have to deal with some of this harassing behavior. So, that's what I got for today's episode, and if you enjoy the podcast, then please consider spreading the word, tell your friends about it, and follow me on Twitter at Kent Bye, as well as on Snapchat. I just went to take a tour through Valve's offices, so I have some nice Snapchat coverage of that. And so, also if you do enjoy the podcast and would like to help support it, then please consider becoming a contributor to the Patreon at patreon.com slash Voices of VR.

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