His Instagram account was “Metaverse”. Last month he disappeared.

SYDNEY, Australia – In October Thea-Mai Baumann, an Australian artist and technologist, found herself sitting on a top-notch website.

In 2012, she started an Instagram account with the handle @metaverse, a name she used in her creative work. On the account, she documented her life in Brisbane, where she studied fine arts, and her trips to Shanghai, where she started an augmented reality business called Metaverse Makeovers.

She had fewer than 1,000 followers when Facebook, Instagram’s parent company, announced on October 28 that it was changing its name. Now Facebook would be known as the Meta, reflecting his interest in the Metaverse, a virtual world he sees as the future of the Internet.

In the previous days, as the rumor circulated, Ms Baumann began to receive messages from strangers offering to buy her Instagram account. “You are now a millionaire,” wrote one person in her account. Another warned, “fb isn’t going to buy it, they’re going to take it.” “

On November 2, that’s exactly what happened.

Early that morning, when she tried to log into Instagram, she discovered that the account had been disabled. A message on the screen read: “Your account has been blocked for pretending to be someone else. “

Who, she wondered, was she supposed to be posing now after nine years? She tried to verify her identity with Instagram, but weeks went by without a response, she said. She spoke to an intellectual property lawyer, but could only afford a review of Instagram’s terms of service.

“This account is a decade of my life and my work. I didn’t want my contribution to the Metaverse wiped off the internet, ”she said. “It happens all the time to women in tech, to women of color in tech,” added Ms. Baumann, of Vietnamese descent.

She launched Metaverse Makeovers in 2012. When a phone running her app was placed over one of the intricate real-world nail designs created by her team, the on-screen image showed holograms “popping up” ” nails. This was before Pokémon Go, before Snapchat and Instagram filters were part of everyday life.

She saw the potential to expand technology to clothing, accessories and beyond, but her investment ran out in 2017, and she returned to the art world.

Meanwhile, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was investing heavily in his own futuristic vision of the metaverse – what he called “an embodied Internet where you are in the experience, not just looking at it.”

“The metaverse,” Zuckerberg said when announcing his new company name, “will not be created by one company”. Instead, he said, it will host a range of creators and developers with “interoperable” offerings.

Cory Doctorow, blogger and tech activist, said this declared openness comes with some big caveats.

“He built Facebook by creating a platform where other businesses meet their customers,” Doctorow said, “but where Facebook structures the entire market, reserving the right to destroy those businesses through negligence, malice. or incompetence. “

This vast power, governed by opaque policies and algorithms, extends to corporate control over individual user accounts.

“Facebook has unlimited discretion to appropriate people’s Instagram usernames,” said Rebecca Giblin, director of the Australian Institute for Intellectual Property Research at the University of Melbourne. “There may be good reasons for this – for example, if they are offensive or pose as someone in a confusing way.”

“But the example of @metaverse highlights the extent of that power,” she said, adding that under Facebook policies, users “have essentially no rights.”

On December 2, a month after Ms Baumann first took to Instagram to restore her account, The New York Times reached out to Meta to ask why it had been closed. An Instagram spokesperson said the account was “wrongly deleted for impersonation” and would be restored. “We are sorry that this error has occurred,” he wrote.

Two days later, the account was back online.

The spokesperson did not explain why he was reported for impersonation, or who he might have impersonated. The company did not respond to further questions on whether the block was related to Facebook’s rebranding.

Now that her account has been resurrected, Ms Baumann plans to fold the saga into an art project she started last year, P??st_Lyfe, which talks about death in the Metaverse. She is also considering what she can do to ensure the Metaverse becomes the inclusive place she said she tried to help build.

“Because I’ve been working in the metaverse space for so long, 10 years, I just feel worried,” she said. She fears, she added, that her culture is “corrupted by the kind of Silicon Valley tech brethren who I think lack vision and integrity.”

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