For years, people of color have been fighting to be heard on Facebook (ahem, Meta)—beyond the ubiquitous hot takes on pop culture and viral video clips. According to groups like Color of Change, the social media site has been punishing users who inform, denounce and call out racism in their corner of Facebook.
USA Today reports that the regulation goes as far as account suspension whenever the phrase “white people” appears in a status update—even when describing personal real-life prejudicial scenarios. So if our communities already feel as if they don’t have a place on Facebook, where would they fit in within the metaverse?
The growing popularity of NFTs (non-fungible tokens) have opened the floodgates for people to take their race-based microaggressions to macro levels and call it “art.”
New Meta, Same Racism
In October of 2021, Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook and its entities (Instagram, WhatsApp, Oculus, etc.) would fall under an entirely new handle, Meta. At the Connect 2021 virtual conference, Zuckerberg shared his “Vision for the metaverse”:
“[It’s] a successor to the mobile internet, a set of interconnected digital spaces that lets you do things you can’t do in the physical world… Importantly, it’ll be characterized by social presence, the feeling that you’re right there with another person no matter where in the world you happen to be.”
It all sounds intriguing enough, this virtual reality space, but for most people of color, the selling point wouldn’t be hanging out with anonymous others who—in this new world—feel completely uninhibited and free to be their true selves, avatar notwithstanding. Plenty of us would say that we’ve had our fair share of experience with that sort of unbridled misconduct, particularly since the 45th president of the United States was elected; fanning hateful flames and touting events like 2021’s Capitol insurrection and before that, the “fine people on both sides” of the riots in Charlottesville. Before we can consider the metaverse, we have to take a closer look at how we’re already treated in the space that we have.
If, in the physical world, people of color are already being challenged in the worst ways, both on and offline, what type of treatment should they expect in the metaverse?
The overzealous regulation of Facebook posts resulting in swift punishment has been dubbed “getting Zucked.” Users in violation of the site’s Community Standards can lose anything from a few days to a month (sometimes back-to-back months) of Facebook privileges simply for bringing certain injustices to light. Black Lives Matter activists have been doxxed as a result of creating posts on Facebook highlighting injustice. Black people independent of any specific organization, simply going online to vent about microaggressions at their day job or at the local supermarket have been silenced and from what we can tell, there’s a lot more effort to be made when it comes to the other side of these transgressions.
For those users who’ve experienced suspension, many of them point out that no one seems to be punishing those who target their posts (at least, not nearly as often), using slurs and other derogatory language. For every status update that condemns anti-Blackness, there is a flood of reports against that page and user, without proper investigation of exactly what was said. There’s simply too much content to moderate and the same goes for Instagram (which, incidentally, is used by 49% of Black Americans).
It appears that this metaverse push from Zuckerberg may be too little, too late, as people of color are beginning to move away from Facebook as a whole, particularly the younger generation between 18-and-24. Instead of obsessively checking status updates, the kids are creating content for the Chinese short-form video app TikTok, which Zuckerberg admits is Meta’s “most effective competitor.” And even TikTok has some pretty clear sticking points as it relates to Black people and their inclusion on their platform.
Racism Is Meta, Too
If in the physical world, people of color are already being challenged in the worst ways, both on and offline, what type of treatment should they expect in the metaverse? Even in looking for their own personal representation in the digital avatar space.
Five years since the NFT CryptoPunk hit the blockchain market, there’s already a huge difference placed on the value of these avatars, based on gender, skin tone and race. Bloomberg reports that the disparity is rooted in the fact that the majority of people in the metaverse are indeed white men “who are willing and able to pay top dollar” to have a CryptoPunk that looks like them. With that said, fair-”skinned” avatars are valued at millions of dollars more than their brown counterparts. Millions.
Collectives like #CryptoCookout, led by designer Ameer Suhayb Carter, are looking to close the gap and make CryptoPunk NFTs more accessible for those in our community who are interested. The group members have all put money into two NFTs in exchange for fractional ownership. It’s a process but Carter makes a solid point: “We’re not intentionally creating this type of imbalanced market. It just happens as a result of us already seeing how Black and Black-identifying things may or may not be cool until it’s cool.” As these things tend to unfold — especially as it relates to pop culture.
The growing popularity of NFTs have opened the floodgates for people to take their race-based microaggressions to macro levels and call it “art.” The MetaSlave collection featured 1,865 Black faces with assigned numbers as NFTs. If 1,865 looks familiar, it’s in reference to the year slavery was abolished. Once the internet caught wind of the collection, the company quickly “rebranded” to include other races. Their Twitter bio didn’t help matters: “In creating our project, we wanted to show that everyone is a slave to something. A slave to desires, work, money, etc.” Um, okay.
Either way, the metaverse is steadily growing. Meta plans on launching virtual fitness programs and work check-ins on the productivity level. As far as global gaming and social networking, the company is hoping to better regulate harassment and racist behavior on this newer platform as compared to yesterday’s Facebook.
According to CNET, Facebook products Oculus and Echo VR (a space combat game) offer specific ways to report users who are in violation of their rules but filing the report itself is off-putting because it’s such an arduous task. Another game, Rec Room, says users can initiate a process where another player can be voted out of the room. You can also mute another player if they’re guilty of offensive behavior.
Where’s Are The Racism Moderators?
Moderators will have double the work in the metaverse because this team will be monitoring users’ behavior in addition to language. Last November, Rec Room announced that the game had begun testing automatic voice moderation, which means other users won’t have to struggle with identifying which avatar is screaming the N-word or any other derogatory language — that offender’s mic would automatically be muted.
The easiest solution in combating racism on these platforms would be recording the games, but Meta says that would violate privacy guidelines, so for now their team of moderators will have to do.
If Facebook has over 40,000 people working in their safety and security department and they can’t get a handle on how many race-based death threats slip through the cracks over there, is Meta safe enough for us to roam? Can we be included in the NFT conversation, invest in and be represented online without being subjected to harassment? Only time can tell but maybe we shouldn’t get our hopes up anytime soon.