Back when Facebook bought Oculus, there was lots of talk about them having some master plan for integrating virtual reality into Facebook: for making virtual reality "social". There was no real need to suppose they had any such master plan: an alternate explanation was that they found the technology interesting and promising, and wanted to be on top of it, wherever it was going. At any rate, if they did have some master plan, we haven't seen much of it in the intervening years. There have been some offerings: one gives people the sense of being in a conference room and seeing crude 3D avatars of the other participants. It doesn't really give Zoom much competition. But now we are to have the "Metaverse": whatever that is to be, Facebook will be putting lots of time and money into its development. To emphasize its significance they are renaming the whole company "Meta". And indeed there are things that can be done with more time and money.

One of them is enabling online lynch mobs.

People already speak of Internet lynch mobs, but with virtual reality they could be so much more. At present they are most often just angry words on a screen. Virtual reality gives a real sense of presence: you wouldn't just be typing words denouncing (to take an old example) that dentist who took a hunting trip to Africa and shot a lion; you'd be marching to his house in the company of friends, ready to string him up from the nearest (virtual) tree. You'd be hearing their (real) voices, their (computer-imagined) footsteps, and all around you the murmurs and the tramp of the crowd, united in righteous emotion. Expertly-done algorithms would be doing the job of taking the collective sound emissions of people walking and talking and compressing them down into a format that would fit the bandwidth of your home Internet, conveying the rumble of distant voices at the same time as the intelligible talk of your neighbors, all with the same sense of directionality of sound that one has in real life. Likewise for vision: turning your head, you'd see the people near you, rendered in 3D as if they were walking with you: wherever you turned your head, you'd see the appropriate part of the scene, communicated to your virtual reality headset from Meta's servers, which would be transmitting detailed rendering information for nearby people and objects and less detailed information for distant ones, all again carefully tailored so as not to overload your connection. Beneath VR goggles, face sensors would be sensing your expressions and conveying them to those nearby. People would have worked long and hard getting that tree to look and act realistic, and that rope, as well as on giving you the user interface to interact with both.

Virtual reality's boosters have often spoken of its "excitement", and can there be anything more exciting than a lynching? It is, of course, not the happiest sort of excitement -- certainly not for the prospective victim. Though how that turned out would depend on how the lords and masters of the Metaverse arranged things. If they provided the option, it might end like the scene in Huckleberry Finn where an armed man stands off a lynch mob from his balcony, taunting them that there isn't a real man among them. But more likely the prospective victim would not deign to participate: he might be played by some "AI" program, such as video games use for "non-player characters". Or, if that weren't done, and not finding him, the mob might burn down his virtual house.

The virtual lynching might be followed by a virtual trial of the mob's leaders and sentencing to virtual jail: log in to the Metaverse any time in the next year, and just see the inside of a jail cell. Or, as often in real life, the Metaverse authorities might side with the mob and let them off scot free, with it being the victim who just saw the inside of a coffin whenever he logged in (or perhaps had to spend a few hours virtually scraping virtual tar and virtual feathers off himself).

The Metaverse's programmers would not actually have to specifically try to enable lynch mobs: all the ingredients mentioned above could be provided by general-purpose virtual-world infrastructure. If the virtual world has tar and it has feathers, occasionally people will get it into their heads to combine the two; and if one tool is taken away from them, others can be substituted.

I suppose it may be too much to ask that people retain a sense of humor about whatever may happen along these lines, though that really would be for the best.