Five days after Facebook changed her name to Meta, an Australian artist found herself locked out, seemingly without recourse, from an account documenting nearly a decade of her life and work.
SYDNEY, Australia — In October, Thea-Mai Baumann, an Australian artist and technologist, found herself sitting in prime internet real estate.
In 2012, he opened an Instagram account with the username @metaverse, a name he used in his creative work. In the account, she documented her life in Brisbane, where she studied fine art, and her trips to Shanghai, where she built an augmented reality company called Metaverse Makeovers.
It had fewer than 1,000 followers on Facebook, Instagram’s parent company, announced on October 28 that it was changing its name. From now on, 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.
In the days leading up to the news leaking, Ms. Baumann began receiving messages from strangers offering to buy her Instagram account. “Now you are a millionaire,” wrote one person on his account. Another warned: “fb is not going to buy it, they are going to take it”.
On November 2, exactly that 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 impersonating someone else.”
Who, he wondered, was he now supposedly impersonating after nine years? He tried to verify his identity with Instagram, but weeks went by with no response, he said. He spoke to an intellectual property lawyer, but was only able to afford a review of Instagram’s terms of service.
“This account is a decade of my life and work. I didn’t want my contribution to the metaverse to be erased from the internet,” he said. “That happens to women in tech, to women of color in tech, all the time,” added Baumann, who is of Vietnamese descent.
She started Metaverse Makeovers in 2012. When a phone running her app was held over one of the intricate real-world nail designs created by her team, the image on the screen showed holograms “jumping” out of the nails. This was before Pokémon Go, before Snapchat and Instagram filters became part of everyday life.
He saw the potential to scale the technology to clothing, accessories and more, but his investment money dried up in 2017 and he returned to the art world.
Meanwhile, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, was investing heavily in his own futuristic vision of the metaverse, which he called “an embodied Internet where you’re experiencing it, not just looking at it.”
“The metaverse,” Zuckerberg said in announcing his company’s new name, “will not be created by a single company.” Instead, he said, he will welcome a variety of creators and developers making “interoperable” offerings.
Cory Doctorow, blogger and tech activist, said this supposed opening came with big caveats.
“He built Facebook by creating a platform where other companies meet their customers,” Doctorow said, “but where Facebook structures the overall market, reserving the right to destroy those companies through carelessness, malice or incompetence.”
That vast power, governed by opaque policies and algorithms, extends to the company’s control over individual user accounts.
“Facebook has essentially unlimited discretion to hijack people’s Instagram usernames,” said Rebecca Giblin, director of the Australian Intellectual Property Research Institute at the University of Melbourne. “There may be good reasons for that, for example if they are offensive or impersonate someone in a way that causes confusion.”
“But the @metaverse example highlights the breadth of this power,” he said, adding that under Facebook’s policies, users have “essentially no rights.”
On December 2, a month after Ms. Baumann first appealed to Instagram to restore her account, The New York Times contacted Meta to ask why it had been shut down. An Instagram spokesperson said the account had been “incorrectly removed for phishing” and would be restored. “We are sorry this error occurred,” he wrote.
Two days later, the account was back online.
The spokesperson did not explain why he had been flagged for impersonation or who he might have been impersonating. The company did not respond to further questions about whether the block was related to Facebook’s rebranding.
Now that her account has been resurrected, Ms. Baumann plans to turn the saga into an art project she started last year, P∞st_Lyfe, which deals with death in the metaverse. He’s also considering what he can do to help ensure the metaverse becomes the inclusive place he said he’s tried to help build.
“Because I’ve been working in the metaverse space for so long, 10 years, I’m worried,” she said. She fears, she added, that their culture could be “corrupted by the kind of Silicon Valley techies who, in my opinion, lack vision and integrity.”