We’re only human after all: how hierarchy threatens an equitable metaverse

We’re only human after all: how hierarchy threatens an equitable metaverse
Opinion: Strategy Leaders

Having technological access involves a certain level of privilege. Although it’s still new, we may already be in danger of never realising an inclusive metaverse, writes Mindshare’s paid social account director.

To say “the metaverse is already here” is simultaneously accurate and misleading. The word has evolved into a buzz-term, but for those who work in the world of media, the metaverse will feel a lot closer as the bubble of innovation we inhabit warps our perception.

The metaverse inevitability finds itself intrinsically linked to the social media landscape; but having technological access involves a certain level of privilege, so to assume that this space can ever be fully inclusive is presumptuous; this socio-economic consideration is an automatic hinderance to diversity. We must be careful not to romanticise the metaverse into a utopian space and recognise that although this product is in its infancy, we may never be able to craft an equitable and inclusive metaverse.

All power rests on hierarchy

Within technological advances, one crucial aspect that is overlooked is human nature. Hierarchy is the continuous raison d’être for humanity, with a wealth of evidence that “social hierarchies are endemic, innate, and most likely, evolved to support survival within a group living context.” Therefore, this immediately throws up barriers for equality and inclusivity.

One of the key players in the metaverse universe is, of course Meta, and its initial approach to this critical issue seems to be positive, with the aim to “build the metaverse with diversity and inclusion from the start’.’

However, Meta’s long-term goals lack short-term solutions, with attracting diverse talent hinging on education programmes that will empower the tech workers of tomorrow, but do not answer the issues of today. If the metaverse truly is already here, we need to act faster.

Safeguarding is needed both on a company level, with robust machine and human capabilities, and from a governmental perspective. However, the Online Safety Bill in the UK centres on current technology as opposed to looking ahead. This is a concern although, admittedly unsurprising, given how fast the world of media moves versus legislative processes (the current Online Safety Bill only reached its third reading in the House of Commons in January 2023).

Independent regulatory bodies such as Ofcom or membership bodies like the IAB will have to take a big role in ensuring government legislation is up to standard, using their expertise to avoid blanket policies that do not possess the nuance needed to deal with the media landscape, and to negate a partisan agenda derailing necessary precautions.

The virtual self

Initial safeguards must centre around macro issues such as privacy concerns, criminal activity, protecting minors; but users do not just deserve to feel safe, they deserve to feel seen.

The metaverse unlocks the opportunity for a new form of self-expression, but also offers potential for anonymity. The current lack of regulation could exacerbate dangerous behaviours, meaning safeguards focused on identity are necessary.

Within the metaverse, individuals will take on a new representation of themselves through avatars. To promote an equitable and inclusive metaverse, standard safeguards around user verification and content moderation are needed, but representation within the user experience will be a safeguard too.

To craft a space where diverse voices can be heard, we need a space where diversity is seen, and a consistent issue throughout the virtual world has been a lack of representation in avatars around race, disability, gender and more. A study analysing the importance of representation in the virtual world found that when put into a testing scenario with low diversity options, black participants created whiter avatars, whereas white participants were largely unaffected. If these limited options are transferred into the metaverse this is the antithesis of an equitable space.

Considering equality and inclusivity in user’s virtual representations is not an exhaustive solution, but ensuring all identities are represented will go a long way to guarantee that diversity is a ubiquitous element of the metaverse.

Looking to the future

To ensure we hear diverse voices and create equality and inclusivity in the metaverse, we need to mirror this commitment outside of the virtual and into the everyday. We will not see true progress in the metaverse unless we see progress in society first.

It is inevitable that media owners and government bodies will move to craft a safeguard infrastructure for a more secure metaverse, but this needs to be achieved through a mixture of long-term solutions and working dynamically with the realisation that this cannot be side-lined for later in the metaverse’s journey.

Specific safeguards that need to be put in place to ensure that the metaverse is as equitable and inclusive as possible will have to be robust and uncompromising, with machine learning and human input. There would be exponential value in having diverse voices contributing to this virtual space from the start, meaning a strong DE&I focus, learning from studies that integrate diverse viewpoints and an emphasis on language, avatar representation and the consideration that technological access is a privilege for many is vital. This needs to be a robust commitment and not just a tick box exercise.

However, responsibility around inclusion and diversity will not rest solely on safeguards, it must come from the people who inhabit this space as well. Hierarchy will always have a place in large structures, be they society as we know it or computer-generated worlds, so crafting an equitable and inclusive metaverse will need to be a collaborative effort from those in positions of power and everyday users.

The metaverse will only be as fair as the individuals that use it. We must do better in our physical world to be better in the virtual.

Evie Clifton is paid social account director at WPP media agency Mindshare

Strategy Leaders: The Media Leader‘s weekly bulletin with thought leadership, news and analysis dedicated to excellence in commercial media strategy.
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