Digital communication lacks a human side and Virtual Reality could change that

Over the past years, fighting hate speech has become one of the most pressing challenges of the digital world. The very nature of public one-to-many text communication eliminates some of the mental and emotional checkpoints that prevent people in face-to-face encounters from passionately insulting each other. The satirical website The Onion perfectly illustrated this fundamental issue in 2013 with an article titled “Seemingly Mentally Ill Internet Commenter Presumably Functions In Outside World”. There just is something in humans which enables them to express their darkest, most cruel thoughts about others when they do not have to observe the immediate emotional reaction of their “target”. Which is also why it has become a thing to have public figures or people who have been targeted with hate speech to read inflammatory, hateful online comments loud.

While it is important that politicians and online platforms are working on new solutions to prevent aggressive online users from crossing the line, the chances for big progress in today’s digital environment are not too good – at least as long as one does not promote the creation of a repressive surveillance state which heavily polices citizen’s each and every online remark.

Perhaps, online hate speech will remain an issue as long as digital communication physically and emotionally disconnects and separates the communication parties from each other. Does that mean there is no hope? There is: Virtual Reality.

Virtual Reality (VR) immerses users in a way no other digital technology does. Through various clever tricks explained here, the technology successfully creates the illusion of reality. If done well, users of VR end up forgetting that they are just sitting on their sofa wearing a bulky headset. Their brain and perception get completely immersed in the virtual world that is being presented to them.

The beauty of VR is that it has the potential to bridge the gaps introduced by the the traditional forms of online communication. A bunch of people, thousands of kilometers away from each other, could meet up in a virtual space, looking into each other’s eyes in a setting that makes them feel as if they’d actually be in the same room. Would it suddenly become much harder to outright call someone a dumb idiot than in a tweet or Facebook comment discussion? Possibly yes.

In a recent interview, Palmer Luckey, the CEO and founder of Facebook-owned VR company Oculus VR, explained what he thinks makes VR special when it comes to digital communication:

“I think that virtual reality is the first technology in a long time that makes digital communication a lot more human. I’m not necessarily talking virtual reality as it exists today, where we have fairly limited avatars and voice chat. I’m talking about a few years down the line as virtual reality progresses to its natural conclusion. Eventually we’re going to be able to — if not perfectly — do a really good job of simulating people actually being together in the same space. To me, that’s going to connect people a lot more than isolate people. It’s just going to connect them in a different way.”

As Luckey points out, the described scenario is still a few years in the future. Also, one still should be a bit sceptical about whether the current VR hype really will change digital as fundamental as it is often being advertised by those involved in the VR business. However, the possibility is there and it is real.

Once VR has proven to be able to fulfill its lofty promises, there will be large incentives for online platforms to move away from today’s text-centric one-to-many communication towards a VR-based one. The companies will create VR spaces for individuals to interact and discuss – spaces that will feel more like real life places than like a random, slightly meaningless discussion on Facebook. Even though users might initially be hesitant, they’ll eventually fall for it. Especially if the online giants decide to heavily push VR. At one point, the idea of entering your quick, impulsive rant into a tiny text-field on your smartphone in order for various strangers to marvel at any time in the future might seem totally anachronistic.

People make use of the digital tools that are given to them. If widespread hate speech indeed should turn out to be a phenomenon that flourishes in the text-centric public areas of today’s Internet, one way (and maybe the best) to tackle this challenge is to quickly move on to a technology which takes better into account the patterns and flaws of human communication.

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