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Facebook actually made something good. It’s called Horizon and it’s only in VR.

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I didn’t expect to like Facebook’s Horizon

That’s not to say I really had any idea of what to expect prior to my first visit to the social media giant’s Pixar film-like virtual world. It’s just that after four years of near-constant Facebook user privacy scandals, reports of CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s coziness with Trump, and the continuing proliferation of misinformation on the platform, my natural reaction to any of the company’s products — especially one which promises to transplant the entire concept of the social network to a new medium — is one of cautious skepticism.

So you can understand how conflicted I felt when I found myself annoyed that my delightful 45-minute guided demo, punctuated by bouts of shared laughter, had come to an end and I’d spent most of it with an ear-to-ear grin plastered across my face. 

All of which is to say: I really like Facebook’s Horizon.

A world of pure imagination

Welcome to the Plaza!

Welcome to the Plaza!

Image: facebook

The “creation-focused experience” is gearing up to be an integral part of Oculus’ virtual reality platform, whether that’s on the company’s wireless Quest headsets or its soon-to-be-sunset, PC-connected Rift. Think of Horizon as a mashup between PlayStation’s VR creation sandbox title Dreams, the 3D virtual worlds of Second Life, and the event-focused gameplay of Nintendo’s blockbuster Animal Crossing with a splash of that rounded, Woody-from-Toy Story aesthetic perfected by Pixar. Currently in an indefinite, invite-only beta testing period within the U.S., it’s charming and brimming with user-created possibilities, and Facebook is very much aware of its impending irresistible potential.

“It’s a ‘do’ social network versus a ‘share’ social network,” says Ari Grant, product management director at Facebook Reality Labs Experiences. “I do believe the next wave of social is being with people that matter to you, doing experiences that matter to you, and creating relationships.” 

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Grant’s referring to Horizon’s suite of creation tools, designed to allow its users to build out worlds, games, and experiences they can share with other Facebook users that come to inhabit its plaza.

“It’s a ‘do’ social network versus a ‘share’ social network.”

Those user-generated experiences can really take the form of anything; they’re only limited by users’ imaginations and the toolset available. But to jumpstart that process, Facebook has committed to programming events for Horizon, at least a “couple a week” according to Grant, that can range from things like haunted houses to escape room puzzle adventures to regular meetup spaces. Grant says there’s also room for users to explore less exciting but more practical use cases that are better suited to their real-world needs, like “tutoring” or even “worship.”

“A great analogy for Horizon is Facebook Groups,” says Meaghan Fitzgerald, head of product marketing at Facebook Reality Labs Experiences, of the shared online spaces that allow Facebook users to connect along similar ideologies. “It gives people the ability to start a community.” 

It’s that emphasis on community that lies at the core of the entire Horizon experience. 

I promise you I don't look like a second grade school teacher IRL.

I promise you I don’t look like a second grade school teacher IRL.

Image: screenshot / facebook horizon

“The way I really think about Horizon,” says Grant, “is when you interact with people right now, there is a split interaction mode: people around you in real life you have deep connections with, and then people on the internet you get to nerd out about hobbies. … It’s really a split. I think, in life, we strive for people who are both. Horizon gives people opportunities to have both: people who have the same interests as you and want to make memories.”

Currently, the platform allows its creators to add up eight people to instances of its worlds. Those people must also be active members of Facebook’s traditional, hot mess of an online social network — you can’t log into Horizon otherwise. The same goes for Quest 2 users. 

You all know the drill by now: If you want to play in Facebook’s version of virtual reality, you have to pay the toll with your user data. Users chortling and cavorting through Horizon’s many, varied worlds are essentially blood-bags of data ripe for Facebook’s invisible swarm of privacy-preying algorithmic mosquitoes. Information pertaining to your avatar, movements, activities, interactions, and voice commands are all fair game for its product-building and ad-serving purposes.

“A great analogy for Horizon is Facebook Groups. It gives people the ability to start a community.”

All of the usual privacy caveats apply. Per the terms of service, “if you create or upload content to Horizon, you grant [Facebook] permission to store, copy, and share it with others.” Also: “You understand that you may be exposed to content from a variety of sources when using Horizon and acknowledge that content may be inaccurate, offensive, indecent, or otherwise objectionable.” So, much like how Facebook and Instagram are infested with QAnon conspiracists and 5G truthers, you will also likely find similarly deluded individuals sucking up Horizon’s virtual oxygen. That’s just the world we live in now, folks.

The good news is that Facebook’s provided for a way to handle abusive individuals you might have the misfortune of interacting with while within Horizon. By selecting the Safety button from a wrist-mounted pop-up menu, you can enter a “bubble” that isolates you from any real-time interaction, rendering you essentially invisible to outside users, and allowing you to file a report. 

Safe inside my bubble

Safe inside my bubble

Image: screenshot / facebook horizon

Grant says that report will include “a couple of minutes” of audio locally processed on your headset on a rolling buffer. “By the time you open up the menu to report something,” he explains of the recording policy, “you’ve missed it. … We don’t store audio from Horizon on our servers unless a person files a report. None of it is stored. Once a report is done being investigated and handled, then we delete those recordings.”

There are other notable quirks to Horizon’s user-generated content policies. If you create a world or object and invite another user to join that creation as a collaborator, you’re effectively granting them shared ownership of your work. That means if you suddenly decide to delete your Horizon account, your creations will persist without you. You can, of course, delete them prior to deleting your account — so it’s not like you’re losing total control. But still, it’s something to be mindful of before entering.

“As long as you have your account, you have control over those worlds,” says Grant.

Anything you want to, do it

Shooting targets with my guides in Balloon Bash.

Shooting targets with my guides in Balloon Bash.

Image: facebook

Now that we’ve covered the uncomfortable, user-monitoring underbelly of Horizon, let’s talk about the beautiful swan visible above its virtual waters. And, my, is it pretty.

When you first enter Horizon, you’re prompted to create your avatar while facing a virtual mirror. It’s a relatively straightforward process akin to those you’ve encountered in any number of video games, and it’s mercifully not overloaded by a multitude of customization options — not yet, anyway. Horizon’s avatars are expressive and endearing, and you’ll immediately notice that their mouths move in sync with users’ voices. When I met my first guide, VRwithKR, within Horizon’s plaza, I was gobsmacked by just how “real” he felt. The awkwardness and tentative shyness that usually washes over me in something like VRChat, with its way less expressive avatars, was all but absent. I was as engaged with my guide as I normally would’ve been if we’d met at some anonymous corporate conference room or hotel lobby IRL. He just felt real.

The plaza — the meeting ground for users that enter into it — is a simple, welcoming environment that’s dotted by portals to different “worlds.” You can either pass through these like you would in VRChat or search for worlds to visit using the pop-up menu on your wrist and be transported immediately. For the purpose of my demo, I was taken to two worlds created by Facebook employees using Horizon’s creation tools: Balloon Bash and Interdimensional.

Balloon Bash is a multiplayer-style game that saw myself and two other Facebook employees racing around a sandboxed environment under a time limit and shooting at targets with cutesy, canon-like guns. It may not sound impressive until you consider that anyone can take advantage of Horizon’s tools to build these game worlds and objects, and employ scripts to program them.

Entering the puzzle game world of Interdimensional.

Entering the puzzle game world of Interdimensional.

Image: screenshot / facebook horizon

The second game experience, Interdimensional, offered a variety of mini-games, but we only had time to play one — a co-op puzzle experience. While I waited in an adjacent “room” with a control panel of geometrically labeled buttons in front of me and peered out through a viewing window, my guide was in the interior chamber, calling out directions in the form of those geometric shapes in order to guide a floating cube into a nearby slot. It was surprisingly involved for a simple demo, and left me wondering just what else users could dream up.

The final leg of my guided Horizon demo took place within its creation space and gave me a brief opportunity to build using the tools. To start, I entered into “god mode,” which blew my avatar up to gigantic proportions — giving me and my guides a good laugh — and placed tool palettes on either of my wrists. Within minutes, this vast, white-tiled space was quickly filled by an outsized and disproportionate Olaf-like snowman of my own design. (In my defense, I’d just watched Frozen 2 the night before, and a relatively uncomplicated snowman seemed like the easiest object for me to design given the time constraints.) Before I knew it, my guide was using this monstrous, broke-down Olaf as a makeshift avatar, humorously chasing down the other Facebook guide within my demo. It was silly, but oh so much fun.

Don't scare the guides, Olaf!

Don’t scare the guides, Olaf!

Image: screenshot / facebook horizon

And then it was over. My time was up. I said goodbye to my congenial guides, exited Horizon, lost my temporary beta access to its myriad, unvisited worlds, and was then immediately consumed by a desire to return.

I like Horizon. I just don’t like that it’s a Facebook thing.

But I’ll be back.

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The Trump campaign celebrated a growth record that Democrats downplayed.

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The White House celebrated economic growth numbers for the third quarter released on Thursday, even as Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s presidential campaign sought to throw cold water on the report — the last major data release leading up to the Nov. 3 election — and warned that the economic recovery was losing steam.

The economy grew at a record pace last quarter, but the upswing was a partial bounce-back after an enormous decline and left the economy smaller than it was before the pandemic. The White House took no notice of those glum caveats.

“This record economic growth is absolute validation of President Trump’s policies, which create jobs and opportunities for Americans in every corner of the country,” Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign said in a statement, highlighting a rebound of 33.1 percent at an annualized rate. Mr. Trump heralded the data on Twitter, posting that he was “so glad” that the number had come out before Election Day.

The annualized rate that the White House emphasized extrapolates growth numbers as if the current pace held up for a year, and risks overstating big swings. Because the economy’s growth has been so volatile amid the pandemic, economists have urged focusing on quarterly numbers.

Those showed a 7.4 percent gain in the third quarter. That rebound, by far the biggest since reliable statistics began after World War II, still leaves the economy short of its pre-pandemic levels. The pace of recovery has also slowed, and now coronavirus cases are rising again across much of the United States, raising the prospect of further pullback.

“The recovery is stalling out, thanks to Trump’s refusal to have a serious plan to deal with Covid or to pass a new economic relief plan for workers, small businesses and communities,” Mr. Biden’s campaign said in a release ahead of Thursday’s report. The rebound was widely expected, and the campaign characterized it as “a partial return from a catastrophic hit.”

Economists have warned that the recovery could face serious roadblocks ahead. Temporary measures meant to shore up households and businesses — including unemployment insurance supplements and forgivable loans — have run dry. Swaths of the service sector remain shut down as the virus continues to spread, and job losses that were temporary are increasingly turning permanent.

“With coronavirus infections hitting a record high in recent days and any additional fiscal stimulus unlikely to arrive until, at the earliest, the start of next year, further progress will be much slower,” Paul Ashworth, chief United States economist at Capital Economics, wrote in a note following the report.

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Black and Hispanic workers, especially women, lag in the U.S. economic recovery.

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The surge in economic output in the third quarter set a record, but the recovery isn’t reaching everyone.

Economists have long warned that aggregate statistics like gross domestic product can obscure important differences beneath the surface. In the aftermath of the last recession, for example, G.D.P. returned to its previous level in early 2011, even as poverty rates remained high and the unemployment rate for Black Americans was above 15 percent.

Aggregate statistics could be even more misleading during the current crisis. The job losses in the initial months of the pandemic disproportionately struck low-wage service workers, many of them Black and Hispanic women. Service-sector jobs have been slow to return, while school closings are keeping many parents, especially mothers, from returning to work. Nearly half a million Hispanic women have left the labor force over the last three months.

“If we’re thinking that the economy is recovering completely and uniformly, that is simply not the case,” said Michelle Holder, an economist at John Jay College in New York. “This rebound is unevenly distributed along racial and gender lines.”

The G.D.P. report released Thursday doesn’t break down the data by race, sex or income. But other sources make the disparities clear. A pair of studies by researchers at the Urban Institute released this week found that Black and Hispanic adults were more likely to have lost jobs or income since March, and were twice as likely as white adults to experience food insecurity in September.

The financial impact of the pandemic hit many of the families that were least able to afford it, even as white-collar workers were largely spared, said Michael Karpman, an Urban Institute researcher and one of the studies’ authors.

“A lot of people who were already in a precarious position before the pandemic are now in worse shape, whereas people who were better off have generally been faring better financially,” he said.

Federal relief programs, such as expanded unemployment benefits, helped offset the damage for many families in the first months of the pandemic. But those programs have mostly ended, and talks to revive them have stalled in Washington. With virus cases surging in much of the country, Mr. Karpman warned, the economic toll could increase.

“There could be a lot more hardship coming up this winter if there’s not more relief from Congress, with the impact falling disproportionately on Black and Hispanic workers and their families,” he said.

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Ant Challenged Beijing and Prospered. Now It Toes the Line.

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As Jack Ma of Alibaba helped turn China into the world’s biggest e-commerce market over the past two decades, he was also vowing to pull off a more audacious transformation.

“If the banks don’t change, we’ll change the banks,” he said in 2008, decrying how hard it was for small businesses in China to borrow from government-run lenders.

“The financial industry needs disrupters,” he told People’s Daily, the official Communist Party newspaper, a few years later. His goal, he said, was to make banks and other state-owned enterprises “feel unwell.”

The scope of Mr. Ma’s success is becoming clearer. The vehicle for his financial-technology ambitions, an Alibaba spinoff called Ant Group, is preparing for the largest initial public offering on record. Ant is set to raise $34 billion by selling its shares to the public in Hong Kong and Shanghai, according to stock exchange documents released on Monday. After the listing, Ant would be worth around $310 billion, much more than many global banks.

The company is going public not as a scrappy upstart, but as a leviathan deeply dependent on the good will of the government Mr. Ma once relished prodding.

More than 730 million people use Ant’s Alipay app every month to pay for lunch, invest their savings and shop on credit. Yet Alipay’s size and importance have made it an inevitable target for China’s regulators, which have already brought its business to heel in certain areas.

These days, Ant talks mostly about creating partnerships with big banks, not disrupting or supplanting them. Several government-owned funds and institutions are Ant shareholders and stand to profit handsomely from the public offering.

The question now is how much higher Ant can fly without provoking the Chinese authorities into clipping its wings further.

Excitable investors see Ant as a buzzy internet innovator. The risk is that it becomes more like a heavily regulated “financial digital utility,” said Fraser Howie, the co-author of “Red Capitalism: The Fragile Financial Foundation of China’s Extraordinary Rise.”

“Utility stocks, as far as I remember, were not the ones to be seen as the most exciting,” Mr. Howie said.

Ant declined to comment, citing the quiet period demanded by regulators before its share sale.

The company has played give-and-take with Beijing for years. As smartphone payments became ubiquitous in China, Ant found itself managing huge piles of money in Alipay users’ virtual wallets. The central bank made it park those funds in special accounts where they would earn minimal interest.

After people piled into an easy-to-use investment fund inside Alipay, the government forced the fund to shed risk and lower returns. Regulators curbed a plan to use Alipay data as the basis for a credit-scoring system akin to Americans’ FICO scores.

China’s Supreme Court this summer capped interest rates for consumer loans, though it was unclear how the ceiling would apply to Ant. The central bank is preparing a new virtual currency that could compete against Alipay and another digital wallet, the messaging app WeChat, as an everyday payment tool.

Ant has learned ways of keeping the authorities on its side. Mr. Ma once boasted at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, about never taking money from the Chinese government. Today, funds associated with China’s social security system, its sovereign wealth fund, a state-owned life insurance company and the national postal carrier hold stakes in Ant. The I.P.O. is likely to increase the value of their holdings considerably.

“That’s how the state gets its payoff,” Mr. Howie said. With Ant, he said, “the line between state-owned enterprise and private enterprise is highly, highly blurred.”

China, in less than two generations, went from having a state-planned financial system to being at the global vanguard of internet finance, with trillions of dollars in transactions being made on mobile devices each year. Alipay had a lot to do with it.

Alibaba created the service in the early 2000s to hold payments for online purchases in escrow. Its broader usefulness quickly became clear in a country that mostly missed out on the credit card era. Features were added and users piled in. It became impossible for regulators and banks not to see the app as a threat.

ImageAnt Group’s headquarters in Hangzhou, China.
Credit…Alex Plavevski/EPA, via Shutterstock

A big test came when Ant began making an offer to Alipay users: Park your money in a section of the app called Yu’ebao, which means “leftover treasure,” and we will pay you more than the low rates fixed by the government at banks.

People could invest as much or as little as they wanted, making them feel like they were putting their pocket change to use. Yu’ebao was a hit, becoming one of the world’s largest money market funds.

The banks were terrified. One commentator for a state broadcaster called the fund a “vampire” and a “parasite.”

Still, “all the main regulators remained unanimous in saying that this was a positive thing for the Chinese financial system,” said Martin Chorzempa, a research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

“If you can’t actually reform the banks,” Mr. Chorzempa said, “you can inject more competition.”

But then came worries about shadowy, unregulated corners of finance and the dangers they posed to the wider economy. Today, Chinese regulators are tightening supervision of financial holding companies, Ant included. Beijing has kept close watch on the financial instruments that small lenders create out of their consumer loans and sell to investors. Such securities help Ant fund some of its lending. But they also amplify the blowup if too many of those loans aren’t repaid.

“Those kinds of derivative products are something the government is really concerned about,” said Tian X. Hou, founder of the research firm TH Data Capital. Given Ant’s size, she said, “the government should be concerned.”

The broader worry for China is about growing levels of household debt. Beijing wants to cultivate a consumer economy, but excessive borrowing could eventually weigh on people’s spending power. The names of two of Alipay’s popular credit functions, Huabei and Jiebei, are jaunty invitations to spend and borrow.

Huang Ling, 22, started using Huabei when she was in high school. At the time, she didn’t qualify for a credit card. With Huabei’s help, she bought a drone, a scooter, a laptop and more.

The credit line made her feel rich. It also made her realize that if she actually wanted to be rich, she had to get busy.

“Living beyond my means forced me to work harder,” Ms. Huang said.

First, she opened a clothing shop in her hometown, Nanchang, in southeastern China. Then she started an advertising company in the inland metropolis of Chongqing. When the business needed cash, she borrowed from Jiebei.

Online shopping became a way to soothe daily anxieties, and Ms. Huang sometimes racked up thousands of dollars in Huabei bills, which only made her even more anxious. When the pandemic slammed her business, she started falling behind on her payments. That cast her into a deep depression.

Finally, early this month, with her parents’ help, she paid off her debts and closed her Huabei and Jiebei accounts. She felt “elated,” she said.

China’s recent troubles with freewheeling online loan platforms have put the government under pressure to protect ordinary borrowers.

Ant is helped by the fact that its business lines up with many of the Chinese leadership’s priorities: encouraging entrepreneurship and financial inclusion, and expanding the middle class. This year, the company helped the eastern city of Hangzhou, where it is based, set up an early version of the government’s app-based system for dictating coronavirus quarantines.

Such coziness is bound to raise hackles overseas. In Washington, Chinese tech companies that are seen as close to the government are radioactive.

In January 2017, Eric Jing, then Ant’s chief executive, said the company aimed to be serving two billion users worldwide within a decade. Shortly after, Ant announced that it was acquiring the money transfer company MoneyGram to increase its U.S. footprint. By the following January, the deal was dead, thwarted by data security concerns.

More recently, top officials in the Trump administration have discussed whether to place Ant Group on the so-called entity list, which prohibits foreign companies from purchasing American products. Officials from the State Department have suggested that an interagency committee, which also includes officials from the departments of defense, commerce and energy, review Ant for the potential entity listing, according to three people familiar with the matter.

Ant does not talk much anymore about expanding in the United States.

Ana Swanson contributed reporting.

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