#690: Survey of Harassment in VR: Cultural Dynamics vs Tech Solutions

jessica-outlawOn April 4th, Jessica Outlaw released a survey of 600 regular virtual reality users about harassment experiences in VR, which was funded by Pluto VR.

I had a discussion with Outlaw and Lola MacIsaac on the day that this survey was released talking about the results. We explored the limitations of purely technological solutions, the tensions between idealized, long-term solutions at global scale versus more pragmatic, short-term solutions on a local scale, centralized solutions versus decentralized solutions, explicit technological architectures versus implicit cultural norms, and whether or not virtual reality could be a testing ground for emerging restorative justice or truth and reconciliation models.


My thinking on this issue has evolved quite a bit since I had this conversation with Outlaw and MacIsaac. At the time of this conversation I was primarily focused on the global and idealized long-term solutions thinking about the scale of billions of users, then how would blocking work over a time scale of thirty years where VR/AR realities start to blur into “real” realities.

The Cleaners documentary shows the behind-the-scenes process of how social networks outsource content moderation in order to enforce the terms of service, and it featured many political artists and activists who had been censored for violating the terms of service. Facebook doesn’t have much due process in their bans without much transparency for the reasons and no appeals process.

The mechanism of blocking or banning people can serve a short-term function of creating a better user experience, but once a communication network reaches the scale of Facebook with billions of users then bans start to take on a more charged political context within a media ecosystem that’s being monopolized by a handful of centralized companies. In this context, then restorative justice and truth & reconciliation models start to address some of these issues that come up at the scale of fostering global societies over long periods of time.

lola-macisaacBut MacIsaac was voicing the more pragmatic, short-term realities of tools and solutions that need to be available for the level of harassment that’s already happening now. Online harassment isn’t a philosophical issue, but a real reality that needs pragmatic solutions for helping protect users from abusive and sociopathic users.

This is what makes Outlaw’s survey so relevant is that she documents anecdotes of harassment that are already happening online today. She found that 49% of females and 36% of males reported that they’ve experienced some form of sexual harassment within VR.

The reality is that the sociopathic behavior of online trolls is often beyond the capacity of what an anonymous restorative justice could currently handle, and that exiling abusive bad actors through bans and blocking is the best course of action. I don’t articulate this perspective in the context of this discussion from April, and I really appreciate MacIsaac for voicing this perspective.

Also at the time of this conversation, I was really focused on the limits of technological architectures for solving problems of cultural and human dynamics. There was a lot of talk about purely technological fixes to harassment and abuse, and I saw that any purely technological approach was going to be limited. I’ve since interviewed Wendy Hamamura, who cited Lawrence Lessig’s four regulators to society as being technology, culture, markets, and law.

Now I believe that any solution needs to have some combination of technological, cultural, economic, and legal elements in order to create a holistic solutions to the issues of online harassment. Purely technological solutions may solve some of the symptoms of online harassment and abuse, but they won’t get to the core of the problem. There has to be interpersonal and cultural solutions as well, and in this interview Outlaw cites The Elements of Culture, which lists many different aspects that make up a vibrant community culture including:

  • Artifacts
  • Stories, histories, myths, legends, jokes
  • Rituals, rites, ceremonies, celebrations
  • Heroes
  • Symbols and symbolic action
  • Beliefs, assumptions and mental models
  • Attitudes
  • Rules, norms, ethical codes, values

Outlaw collaborated with a sociologist in her research who pointed out that successful communities will start to naturally produce these elements of culture, which creates a set of cultural norms and taboos that educates and informs new community members about the implicit rules and the code of conduct for that community.

Outlaw advocates for social VR companies to think about how to cultivate some of these cultural elements that implicitly reinforces a culture against harassment. It’s not possible to technologically implement a culture, and so this is a hard problem to figure out how to cultivate these cultural behaviors within a community through the individual actions and behaviors of members.

Should social VR spaces need to have explicit orientations or initiations similar to how college universities will provide introductory tours for new students? What are the best practices for cultivating a culture? These are some of the open questions that I hope to explore more for either what’s already happening in social VR spaces, or what sociologists suggest as some of the best practices for cultivating vibrant virtual cultures.

From a legal perspective, many social VR spaces have explicit codes of conduct, but they still need to be either implicitly enforced by the community or explicitly through roaming content moderators. The problem of harassment requires these types of emergent rules and local legal standards that are either codified within the technological architecture or enforced by the community.

The problem of bullying and harassment is also a human problem where technology reflects and amplifies what is already happening in the dominant culture, and so it’s not reasonable to expect that there will be a purely technological solution. Any viable solution needs to take a holistic approach of finding the right combination of technological, cultural, legal, and economic dimensions.

This conversation with Outlaw and MacIsaac explores some of the complicated dynamics that are involved in the issue of online harassment, but we certainly doesn’t result in any silver bullet solutions. Upon listening to this conversation again, I’m humbled by how much that we actually don’t know how to fix and address the issue. Outlaw’s VR Harassment survey is a good first step that outlines what’s happening today, and there are many vibrant social VR communities who are experimenting with a variety of different approaches to the problem. I’ll be attending Oculus Connect 5, and I’m looking forward to continuing this conversation there.

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