by Madison Connaughton, The New York Times Company
SYDNEY — In October, Thea-Mae Baumann, an Australian artist and technologist, found herself sitting on prime internet real estate.
In 2012, she started an Instagram account with the handle @metaverse, a name she used in her creative works. In the account, she documented her life in Brisbane, where she studied fine arts, and her trip to Shanghai, where she built an augmented reality company called Metaverse Makeover.
She had less than 1,000 followers when Instagram’s parent company Facebook announced on October 28 that it was changing its name. Subsequently, Facebook would be known as Meta, a reflection of its focus on the Metaverse, a virtual world it sees as the future of the Internet.
A few days ago, as word leaked out, Bowman started receiving messages from strangers offering to buy her Instagram handle. “You are a millionaire now,” wrote one person on her account. Another warned: “fb ain’t gonna buy it, they’re gonna take it.”
That’s exactly what happened on November 2.
That morning, when he tried to log in to Instagram, he found that the account had been disabled. A message on the screen read: “Your account has been blocked for pretending to be someone else.”
She wondered, was she now supposedly impersonating after nine years? She tried to verify her identity with Instagram, but weeks went by, but there was no response, she said. She spoke to an intellectual property attorney, but she could only review Instagram’s terms of service.
“This account is a decade of my life and work. I didn’t want my contributions to the Metaverse to be erased from the internet,” she said. “It happens all the time, for women of color in tech, for women of color in tech,” said Baumann, who has Vietnamese heritage.
She debuted the Metaverse makeover in 2012. When a phone running his app was placed on top of one of the complex real-world nails created by his team, the image on the screen would show holograms “popping” from the nails. This was before Pokémon Go, before Snapchat and Instagram filters became a part of everyday life.
She saw the potential to extend technology to clothing, accessories and beyond, but in 2017 her investment money ran out and she returned to the art world.
Meanwhile, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was investing heavily in his futuristic vision of the Metaverse — which he called “an embodied Internet where you’re in the experience, not just watching it.”
“Metaverse,” Zuckerberg said while announcing his company’s new name, “will not be built by one company.” Instead, he said, it would welcome multiple creators and developers creating “interoperable” offerings.
Cory Doctorow, a tech blogger and activist, said that this openness comes with a big caveat.
“They built Facebook by creating a platform where other businesses meet their customers,” Doctorow said, “but where Facebook structures the overall market, it reserves the right to destroy those businesses through negligence, malice or incompetence.” keeps.
That immense power, governed by opaque policies and algorithms, extends to the company’s control over individual user accounts.
“Facebook has essentially unfettered discretion for people’s Instagram usernames,” said Rebecca Giblin, director of Australia’s Institute for Intellectual Property Research at the University of Melbourne. “There may be good reasons for this – for example, if they are being aggressive or impersonating someone in a way that causes confusion.”
“But the @metaverse example highlights the breadth of this power,” she said, adding that under Facebook’s policies, users have “essentially no rights.”
On December 2, a month after Bauman first appealed to Instagram to restore his account, The New York Times contacted Meta to ask why it was shut down. An Instagram spokesperson said the account was “removed for falsely impersonating” and would be reinstated. “We are sorry that this error occurred,” he wrote.
Two days later, the account was back online.
The spokesperson did not say why it was flagged for impersonation, or who it was impersonating. The company did not respond to further questions about whether the blocking was linked to the rebranding of Facebook.
Now that her account has been resurrected, Baumann plans to turn the saga into an art project she started last year, p.Ist_Lyfe, which is about death in the metaverse. She’s also considering what she can do to help ensure that the Metaverse becomes the inclusive space she said she tried to help build.
“Since I’ve been working in the metaverse space for so long, 10 years, I just feel anxious,” she said. He fears, he said, that its culture may be “corrupted by the kinds of Silicon Valley Tech Brothers, whom I find lack vision and integrity.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.