Real Virtual Leaders

Tom Nickel
6 min readSep 20, 2021

Diversity, the Killer App

Horizon Creator Community Leaders, from Facebook Group page

Facebook has bet the house on VR and in case you’re not clear on that, the CEO will announce it again soon.

But what does that mean? Horizon is Facebook’s primary VR platform, at the moment. How is it supposed to recoup the astronomical investment and turn a profit?

Horizon is an app but so far it is not a killer app; that is, a piece of software so compelling that it helps sell whatever it takes to run it. The spreadsheet was the original killer app for personal computers, VisiCalc for Apple and Lotus 1,2,3 for PCs. Some games have leveraged new computers into the marketplace, like Super Mario 64 made Nintendo.

I see email as the killer app of the Internet. Steve Jobs claimed the killer app for mobile was phone calls, but texting has got to be up there too.

Killer Apps aren’t like a blockbuster movie. They are less about dazzling entertainment and Super Heroes and more about extending our capabilities and giving us what feels at first like Super Powers — to be able to do math with all the numbers I ever wanted a million times quicker and better than humanly possible, omg, I felt so powerful working with my first spreadsheet.

What does Horizon empower? How will it ever drive people to buy VR headsets and whatever else comes along to immerse us even more?

Horizon banner from Oculus/Facebook/Horizon overview

An early 2021 article about social VR platforms in Immersive Learning News categorized Horizon as ‘Social Creative.’ That’s a new category, but then so was Social Media once upon a time.

Most other social VR platforms are oriented around events, business collaboration, or education. Rec Room is doing well with ‘Social Play,’ but the ‘Create’ part is what sets Horizon apart.

Horizon feels to me like a big sandbox, with tools I could only dream of when I was a kid. I learned a lot about playing alone and playing with other kids in the sandboxes of toddlerhood and on up. Sticking to myself, not sticking my neck out, feeling good when I was included. We all learned there.

I think that’s why Horizon hasn’t taken off.

Social Creative is daunting. It’s personal and it often links right into painful lessons more than happy times. I think most people do want to work creatively in a way that really expresses who they are and if at all possible, to do it as a part of something bigger than themselves. But it’s risky and it seems like it almost never works, so best not to take a chance.

I remember the first time I posted something on Facebook back in 2008. I thought I was being kind of brave, putting myself out there like that.

The first time people build anything in VR, it feels the same way but with much more at stake.

I’m not all that good at most kinds of creating, which made it hard for me to show my first VR ‘worlds’ to anybody. But when I did, I got good feedback. I had conversations and I met people. I learned fast and got a teeny bit better at it.

I made a friend who has worked with me on world building in a way I have always wanted to work with someone but never quite found, until now.

Horizon Creator Community Leadership pic, 9/19/2021

I appreciate getting some Social Create into my life and I think there is a chance — I am not prognosticating here, just noting what is possible —that Horizon could start becoming a destination where more people will have that kind of tricky, scary, wonderful experience.

The reason that Horizon has not been that place so far, but might be sometime soon, is the platform was not paying attention to its own modest, slowly-but-steadily growing user base. Modest and slowly but steadily are not terms generally associated with Facebook planning.

People are paying attention now and what they are learning is that Social Create might be a good bet for the future — IF Everybody feels welcome and there is plenty of help to get them started. That sounds pretty obvious, but I have some familiarity with at least six social VR platforms and I am not aware of a single one that welcomes newcomers personally or works hard to make everyone feel included. Not even close.

A pre-set formulaic Welcome is not a real human connection that actually makes people feel welcome. Big Companies would obviously think that algorithms and bots are the only efficient way to process the gazillions of newcomers projected to be coming any day now, and maybe it is the most ‘efficient’ way. But it’s not working.

A Human Welcome doesn’t seem like it would scale, but there’s lots of humans and many of them like to be welcoming. Being Human can scale easily, it just takes a little organizing.

What makes a Human Welcome hard for any Social VR platform in the 2020s is the same set of factors that make people feel included or excluded in all the other social platforms we call Work or School or Community. The normal, unequal, excluding and unwelcoming ways are embedding themselves in these brand-new virtual worlds already.

Why wouldn’t they? There is nothing magic or inherent to any medium that makes it an instrument of liberation or an instrument of oppression.

Virtual Reality is a new medium, within the category of Spatial Media. Cultures and Committees are being created there now. Patterns of power and privilege are being baked into the platforms as the default mode, which is not diverse and is never inclusive. Unless default power relations are addressed head-on, unless welcomes and support are personal and accepting, no Social Create app will never be a Killer App.

However.

If old cultural habits are ever going to be changed, now is the time for Social VR and especially for Horizon, because of the Social Create path the platform has chosen. The latent possibilities are so strong that something astonishingly right could happen.

Some people have found an emerging community in Horizon, especially people who like to build and are open to doing it cooperatively. They have formed a Horizon Creator Community. It has a Facebook Page, of course, with 576 members currently. The “About” page says:

We center diverse voices and foster collaborative learning through daily unique page content and hosting weekly events to engage our growing community in learning how to be better together.

Many organizations these days say that they are committed to diversity and some of them have taken just enough steps to present a proper appearance.

The Horizon Creator Community is not an organization as much as it is a collection of 576 people drawn into socially creating in their free time so much that they are passionate about it and passionate about the new culture they want to create. The community does more than welcome newcomers in a human way — it offers mentoring and connections and all the things platforms themselves should be offering but never do.

The Horizon Creator Community does not own the platform. HCC is just directing the platform where it needs to go if Horizon is ever going to become not so much a Killer App as a unique and fulfilling human experience more and more people will want to have in their lives.

Facebook is an ad-serving platform we used to go to for updates on people we actually cared about. Is that the future of virtual reality? A mix of user-generated content and manipulative sponsored content that keeps us immersed and watching ads?

My guess is, No. My guess is, that was Facebook’s original game plan and it’s not working out like they drew it up.

The ad model depends on a mass audience, and the mass audience days are over. That ship has sailed and no one wants to be treated like a mass audience member any more.

I want to be treated like a human and I want to be welcomed for who I am and what I can contribute from my heart. It would be extremely unexpected and very much appreciated by humanity if Facebook’s Horizon could become a platform where being treated like a human is just the way things are, the norm.

Then we can move on to other platforms.

Tom Nickel is a Top Writer on VR for Medium. TOC of all topics here.

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Tom Nickel

Learning Technologist focusing on VR, Video, and Mortality … producer of Less Than One Minute and 360 degree videos