One powerful thing about virtual reality is the way it lets you stand “face to face” with other people—sometimes people from the other side of the world who you’d never otherwise meet. People in social VR settings really tend to connect. I’ve seen people meet and become friends in VR and then continue the friendship in real life. I’ve seen people meet their significant others in virtual reality.
But this only works when people appear as their real selves. And one huge problem with social interactions in virtual reality is the degree of anonymity we’re finding there. It can alienate people who would otherwise be interested in giving social VR a try.
People using anonymity or maintaining a little more privacy isn’t always bad—a shy person might feel able to shake off awkwardness and adopt a more easygoing personality, for example. But what we see too often among the anonymous is bad behavior. With no real name or face it becomes easy to treat people in a critical or abusive way.
We are in the early stages of VR, much like the Internet in the 1990s. There are no rules and no law of the land. We are all learning what is okay and what isn’t. And as in those early Internet days, we’re learning that anonymity causes a degree of chaos and undesirable behaviors. It removes accountability. Anonymity lets people bully others without repercussions.
There’s no simple solution to the problem. Improvements in the areas of friend connections, avatars, and interaction design have helped, but haven’t solved it. App creators can help by creating clear standards, including repercussions for bad behavior. Benefits such as customized avatars, extra capabilities, and new features might help coax people to come out of the shadows and engage more authentically.
Whatever we try, it will be worth the effort. Social VR lets people connect and communicate in a way that’s much more natural, more effective, and richer in context than current methods of communicating over a long distance. I’d like people to think about VR as a place you can go to express yourself authentically and connect with others. Within that space there’s fantastic potential for education, business, science, art, and entertainment. Anonymity kills that potential.
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Mary Mossey is a product manager at AltspaceVR, which uses virtual reality to create a new communications platform.
Hear more about trolls at EmTech MIT 2017.