Guardian columnist and brand strategist, Arwa Mahdawi, reflects on the possibilities and challenges that the metaverse has in store for brands
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Is the metaverse complete bullshit or is the next big thing? Will your brand be irrelevant if you don’t have a metaverse strategy or does investing in the metaverse now mean you’re just wasting money on a gimmick? Behind all the buzzwords that tend to accompany metaverse-musing, those are basically the questions that everyone wants an answer to.
Before we get to those questions, though, I want to share a little secret. Here we go: the metaverse is way less complex than a lot of people make it out to be. The reason it’s so hard to define the metaverse without resorting to an incomprehensible word salad peppered with web3, blockchain, NFT and other zeitgeisty jargon isn’t because it’s complicated—rather, the metaverse is hard to define because it doesn’t exist. It’s not a ‘thing’. It’s just a fancy name used to describe the evolution of the internet as we currently know it into something far more immersive. The specifics of what the metaverse will eventually look like are up for debate but some people envisage it as a parallel virtual world or a sort of 3D internet. That’s a long way off though. As it stands now, the metaverse isn’t terribly exciting: the term is used to describe games like Meta’s Horizon Worlds which are essentially virtual reality spaces where—assuming you have a few hundred dollars to drop on a VR headset— you can hangout, play games, and get sexually assaulted.
Ah yes, as you’ve probably seen, I’m afraid the metaverse already has a major groping problem; there have been a number of disturbing reports of women being raped and harassed in Horizons Worlds. One Horizon Worlds user, who was also a researcher for SumofUS, a non-profit organisation that seeks to limit the power of large corporations, said their digital avatar was “virtually gang raped” within 60 seconds by a group of three to four male-appearing avatars.
Some people have brushed off these assaults as ‘not real’ and therefore not a big deal. But the whole point of the metaverse is that it’s supposed to feel real. Horizon Worlds may not be fully immersive but there’s still a physical aspect to the harassment—when a user is touched in the game the hand controllers vibrate. According to the SumofUs researcher, this created a “very disorienting and even disturbing physical experience” during the assault. Again, Horizon Worlds is a very early iteration of the metaverse. What happens when the metaverse is a lot more sophisticated and feels almost indistinguishable from real life? Online harassment will take on a disturbing new dimension. The internet will become even more toxic for women and marginalized people than it already is: it’ll be more man-o-verse than metaverse. Apart from all the ethical implications of this, there are obvious headaches for advertisers. You don’t want to throw a branded event in the metaverse only for people to start getting assaulted. Not really a good look.
Maybe you’re an optimist. Maybe you reckon Big Tech will have figured out a way to stop harassment on these platforms by the time the metaverse reaches maturity. Maybe! Maybe pigs will fly and Donald Trump will suddenly learn the art of humility. Anything is possible. Alas, I’m not very hopeful that the metaverse is going to be a fun place to be a woman or a marginalized person unless there are drastic changes in the leadership and governance of big tech platforms. Rather than being some sort of utopia, the metaverse is currently on track to be riddled with all the same problems as the internet today, just magnified a million times. Digital surveillance, for example, will be taken to a whole other level in the metaverse because there will be the ability to tap into a new trove of body-related data. Misinformation has the potential to be even more rife than it already is – as Meta’s CTO has already admitted that the metaverse is “practically impossible to moderate.”
I’m not saying it’s all doom and gloom: the metaverse will also magnify everything that is brilliant about the existing internet. It’ll free us from the constraints of physical space; let us interact with more people; let us experience exciting new things. For brands it offers new ways to engage with consumers and add value to their lives. But a lot of work needs to be done if we want the good to outweigh the bad. What does that work look like? Well, I have a handy 3-point plan for ways advertisers can help build a metaverse that isn’t a cesspit of toxicity.
1. Listen to diverse voices.
According to a survey of over 4000 US adults by Morning Consult, men are significantly more likely to be interested in the metaverse than women (46% and 28%, respectively.) That’s not really surprising because privileged men are more insulated from harassment online than women are; there is a reason why the loudest and most enthusiastic voices on the metaverse tend to be a small group of privileged white men! Now, if those are the only people you’re listening to when it comes to the metaverse then that’s a major issue because you’re getting a very skewed perspective and blinding yourself to potential problems. If Meta had had more women involved in the design process for Horizon Worlds, for example, they might have found ways to prevent harassment before it became a PR disaster. In short: make sure your metaverse strategy isn’t being created by a homogenous group of privileged people.
2. Don’t get sidetracked by gimmicks.
It makes me weep to see brands throw millions of dollars on ridiculous stunts in the metaverse that are going to be seen by all of about five tech bros when they could be doing something useful with that money instead. While it’s great to experiment with new technology, do ensure that you’re not just metaversing for the sake of metaversing but are actually putting a long-term strategy in place.
3. Remember you call the shots.
For the past decade there has been an embarrassing deference to Big Tech from brands; a sycophantic simpering to Silicon Valley. But the likes of Meta and Twitter, let’s remember, make money from advertising. Instead of being led by Big Tech, lead them. Demand answers about what they’re doing to combat issues like misogyny and misinformation. Demand accountability. Advertisers are the ones who ultimately call the shots. So, please, please, please, start calling them.