When platform managers speak of safety features in virtual worlds, they often refer to blocking and muting as key tools for users to take advantage of for personal safety. Do those tools work? Yes, and no. Blocking, muting, and personal bubbles can be helpful for cut-and-dry situations in places where users get a little too rowdy. But, there are far more dangers that sometimes lurk beneath the surface, including bad actors who can turn other users' experiences into a living nightmare.
Virtual reality is currently experiencing a reckoning with the subject of community management. When problems with platforms arise, perception can easily set in that money might be more important to a world's administration than anything else. It can leave users feeling powerless and alienated from the space they've chosen to be a part of.
Fixing this problem is a two-part effort. First, safety policy should always be updated to scale with the number of users on a platform. The more users that are regularly logging on, the more a company will also need to practice social neutrality in order to avoid users sniping at each other over favoritism. Bad actors sometimes gravitate to figures of authority in digital communities in order to gain reputation through association. In turn, their harmful actions can make staff look complicit, even if that staff member doesn't completely know what's going on.
The second part, however, is personal empowerment. Users learning what situations to avoid can help to reduce the amount of trouble they'll experience online. This means, learning what social practices are harmful, how to spot them in others, and what to do once a problematic user is found out.
Here are a few tips from us ranging from mindset, to who should be avoided, to the perfect escape plan.
This is part one of our guide on staying safe in social VR. The second half will be posted later, which is a more in-depth outline about assessing groups to determine personal safety.
Understand That You Are the Source of Your Own Power
This is the number one rule: self-determination. There's no one out there who can compete with you. They can't. You're you.
Obtaining self-confidence isn't easy, but the steps you take towards achieving this goal are priceless. Not every day is a high-confidence day, either. Remember the journey to obtain it requires time and patience.
For now, remember: you determine who you hang out with. You guide yourself to be the best person you can be. You determine what opportunities you accept and reject. Give yourself the kindness you deserve. Don't wait for others to provide that kindness for you.
Establish Personal Boundaries and Keep Them in Place
The first thing a harmful user will attack when you're their target, are your personal boundaries. Sometimes, they wear in with acts of kindness first. Then, when you're in a situation where it feels like you owe them, they'll pull out the guilt card and demand you make concessions.
Recognize that not all harmful users are automatically evil people. Sometimes it's just someone making mistakes in interacting with others, even repeating hurtful practices that others have inflicted upon them. Other times, it's a compulsive behavior to lash out and control others. Others still may know exactly what they're doing.
No matter who you deal with, keep your personal boundaries intact. What is something you'd never do for anyone? Think about what you personally tolerate in your friendships and relationships. Healthy boundaries are essential in relating to others in digital spaces; this guide can help with some in-depth advice.
Stay Away From Users Who Are Highly Insecure
You know the person who constantly overthinks (okay, we all do that sometimes) and automatically assumes what others do is meant as an offensive action? The person who can't deliver a compliment without it being backhanded, or sniping at people every once in a while for no reason? That's an insecure person. That's toxic. You don't need them.
Virtual reality has a lot of mental complications for users who haven't fully embraced the digital aspect of existence there. Infallibility seems easier to visualize when your surroundings are electronic in nature, the perfect shader exists for the perfect world, and avatars can look impossibly beautiful. So too follows the illusion that everyone is more perfect than you. It can eat away at someone who already has issues with self-esteem.
A little insecurity is natural to have, but check this guide for when someone you know might have a serious problem. Highly insecure users can often cause too much trouble for others, and you probably aren't a licensed therapist. It's not your burden to deal with.
Avoid Commonly Perceived Centers of Power
This is going to sound surprising: don't interact with staff too much.
This is not because staff are inherently awful. In online communities, users who typically desire power and influence will gravitate to a platform's administration in order to try to gain similar influence over other users. It can become a honeypot situation of bad actors and users with a hyperfocus on popularity.
If you were friends with someone before they became staff, understand their responsibilities have changed and respect the boundary between personal and professional life.
Reject Anyone Who Refers to Social Hierarchies and Gamifies Interacting With Others
The preceding tips were general, but now we're getting more specific: in digital environments, users can quickly forget they're interacting with other human beings. It isn't uncommon to find someone talking to and about others as if they're NPCs, especially when money and a perceived virtual spotlight appear to be at stake.
The advice? Avoid these users like the plague. Things that can raise red flags: ranking other users or establishments, expecting accolades for something one is new at doing (less than a year), talking down to others who don't specifically mention a select person ("y'all are sleeping on this artist, it really shows"), speaking in terms of exclusion ("if you don't attend x event you're really fucking up"), or other similar colloquialisms. Everyone uses familiar phrases from time to time, but too many of these signs can smack of a user who's terminally online. It's about whether someone talks this way while knowing the difference between occasional hype, and being an asshole.
Another huge red flag? A user who speaks only to others who can do something for them. If you make it clear you are only offering friendship and that user immediately lessens their social interaction with you, it's obvious at that point. Don't bother with them at all.
Selling a Product/Service? Your Own Marketing Is What Works the Most
Self-determination comes back in for this tip. Networking in VR is fun, but so far not many artists can make a living off of what they do in virtual reality (unless a company has specifically employed them). Social VR isn't for getting "discovered" or getting a big break in an art career, either. If you want to start making big bucks in your field, don't forget to keep marketing what you're doing to audiences outside of the platform (or for virtual services, you should keep up your marketing game regardless). The artists with the most successful engagement and the most opportunities, gained them through hustling with multiple income streams and wearing different hats to further their own brand.
Ditch Anyone Who Breadcrumbs You To Appear Interesting
Circumstances with personal time change regularly in online communities. Users you've made friends with can get new jobs, lose their old ones, move, enroll in college, drop out, get sick, or lose a loved one and need time for grieving. All of these things will result in a fluctuation of their personal availability. Anyone who suddenly drops off the face of the earth is not automatically breadcrumbing you.
Instead, someone who breadcrumbs shows specific signs of doing so. They often love-bomb people when they first meet them, then slowly fade out until they only offer the bare minimum in communication. The reason for them doing so can range from them being generally indecisive of keeping a friend/relationship, to being just plain manipulative.
When it comes to someone using this professionally to gain followers, it's morally reprehensible but equally indescernible. Is your artist friend utilizing breadcrumbing as a marketing technique within a close community of artists, are they unsatisfied with something, or are they genuinely busy? Ask them. But if you don't care to ask them, then simply move on with your life.
But don't let the problem linger.
Groups Are Fun, but They Aren’t Your Best Friend
Community groups and discords can be a fun way to keep up with your favorite creator or virtual venue. However, be aware of when one might begin to feel too constricting.
This tip is one of personal tolerance, but here's what I look for in red flags as a sign that a group is no longer where I want to be:
- Too many people joining under the guise of social interaction, but are actually there to advertise (duplicitous friendship)
- When two or more users enact a forceful attitude to make others talk about what they want to talk about (in other words, taking up all the air in the room repeatedly)
- When users are trading bitchy comments with one another and no moderator steps in
- When there are too many inside jokes and no effort is made to include newer users in on the jokes
- A lingering, general air of exclusion. "The vibes are off." It's time to go at that point.
The People You Party With May Not Be Long-term
By the same token, people you meet in VR can initially feel like best friends, because you're engaging in new visual experiences with them by way of virtual raves and drinking halls. Sometimes a rude awakening happens when, say, an election cycle pops up and everyone suddenly has a differing opinion.
Friendships can have different levels, purposes, and limits. Your party friends may not be great tabletop gaming friends. Your tabletop gaming friends may not make for long-term friends. Your long-term friends may not understand your party habits.
Determine which friends you want to keep, what you are willing to tolerate, and what you find unacceptable for behavior. This is what your personal boundaries are for!
Too Many Red Flags? Fade Out or Leave With a Smile
When a situation isn't workable and you can't talk out your problems in a rational manner, you may have to determine if you need to walk away and how. Sometimes, you can point-blank tell someone goodbye. Other times, having an honest talk with the wrong person can cause an argument, because of their innately harmful social practices. Determine if it's safe to speak with someone honestly about what isn't working.
If you feel the situation is unsafe to broach anything with your former friend, then it's time to slowly fade out or lie about being busy. Yes, this is dishonest and an aspect of ghosting. No, it isn't recommended you do this except as a last resort. Please don't employ this unless you absolutely have to.
But it goes like this: stop responding in the channel or DMs. Wait for the friend to not notice. Then, leave. Alternatively, you are now busy with a new thing and it is making you so busy that you can't engage often and can't be around as much anymore, or at all. Your choice.
Once you get clear, make sure you work to never put yourself in a similar social situation again.
Avoid People Who Try To Pull You Into Their World Exclusively
Them, them, them. It's all your friend talks about. Their life, their work, their problems. If you mention yours, it isn't long until your friend switches the topic back to them again.
This is another aspect of users treating others as if they're NPCs. Recognize the signs of a selfish person and, if the situation is no longer workable, start planning your escape.
Be Wary of New Friends Who Throw Considerable Money Your Way
There is no one who should spend exorbitant amounts of money on anyone else when they don't know them well, and that person isn't a known philanthropist.
If you have known a person online for less than a year, and that person isn't subscribing to your Patreon, then the sudden flush of cash or expensive gifts can be enough to set off an internal alarm. Learn to recognize this uncomfortable feeling, and understand that every expensive gift or cash offer eventually comes with a price. It might not be one you'll be able to pay.
You’re Not a Snob, You’re Practicing Self-Care
At this point, you're dodging and weaving around others expertly. People won't like your personal boundaries, nor your reluctance to put yourself in just any situation. The first common insult a user will hurl is the accusation that you're a snob.
Listen, people do this for one of two reasons: they either don't understand why you're taking the actions you are, or they're upset you aren't falling into their trap. Be understanding of their reaction and even try to explain the benefits of keeping a bit of caution about you, but don't lower your standards for who you accept as a friend. You deserve kindness and fairness, not a friendship that will make you feel bad about yourself.
The Trajectory of VR Is Not Your Problem
It can be easy to want to give everything to a social VR platform and emotionally shoulder its burdens. But, don't forget: they're here to serve you.
You pay for the experiences, you are the customer. You utilize the platform's tools to create. Your work then advertises itself, in its own way, for others to join the platform and enjoy the worlds there or create for themselves. You've done enough.
If a platform doesn't work out, don't worry. The next one will pick up the lessons of the previous, hopefully learning from them, and build the next version. Somewhere out there is the one that's going to be your ideal.
Until then, keep riding the wave. We're still in the Wild West with VR and it's going to take some time to get it right.