At Davos 2022, the World Economic Forum announced a new initiative to build an equitable, interoperable and safe Metaverse.
It support of this initiative, we examine the diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) challenges that different metaverse platforms face as the technology advances.
Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) are crucial for the metaverse platforms because these values are the foundation of a good user experience, which is key to making the technology mainstream.
A metaverse platform that lacks inclusivity may give new users a bad first impression. For example, if the first thing that female users encounter is sexual harassment or unpleasant comments about their gender, they may lose the desire to return to the platform in the future.
Such failure to engage certain user groups will hinder the metaverse platform from building the ‘network effect’ needed to continuously attract mainstream users.
After all, we can see how the network effect – when the value of a product or service increases as the number of people who use it increases – played a vital role throughout the history of the internet.
Different metaverse platforms have different user bases and DEI challenges due to various factors: the platforms’ features and functionality, its style, historical context, the culture among early adopters and so on.
Rec Room and VRChat, for example, have quite different cultures and user groups.
VRChat’s flexibility of avatar customization attracts more tech-savvy users who are older, more eager to express themselves and more interested in social.
Unlike VRChat, the style and activities on Rec Room attract more users who are younger and more into gameplay such as paintball and laser tag.
Meanwhile, Web 3 metaverse platform Somnium attracts people who are old enough to be interested in investments and collections because of its decentralized finance and non-fungible token functionalities.
Whether a metaverse platform is centralized – where a single entity governs the network – or decentralized – where a platform is open-sourced and users can largely control their own experiences – deeply influences the composition of the user communities, the platform’s culture and the DEI issues it faces.
The table below summarizes the centralized and decentralized metaverse platforms’ strengths and challenges regarding DEI.
For centralized platforms, the composition of the user community is consciously managed by the cooperates’ holistic business strategies and long-term product roadmap.
Roblox’s advertisement, for example, is an intriguing combination of different gaming video clips, trying to get gamers who are looking for adventurous and diverse gaming experiences.
On the other hand, looking into the advertisement of Meta’s Horizon Worlds, we can see Meta cover different social activities and usd avatars of different genders and races to build an image that its platform is for everyone, especially for content creators.
As a relatively new metaverse platform, Meta shows its ambition to embrace mainstream users and determination to catch up with other platforms by explicitly inviting creators to join.
However, centralized metaverse platforms arouse many users’ concerns as the business model defines the platform’s overall algorithms and functionalities.
People are afraid to see the metaverse platforms act like certain social media applications, which provide provoking but addictive content to increase users’ average time spent on them in order to maximize advertising revenue.
Such algorithms can be a hotbed for fake news, hate speech and racism. Jaron Lanier, the founder of the field of virtual reality, argues that tech firms should explore new monetization models other than advertisements to remake the internet.
“We cannot have a society in which, if two people wish to communicate, the only way that can happen is if it’s financed by a third person who wishes to manipulate them,” he says.
Decentralized platforms seem to be the solution to the problematic internet culture that we have now – with the user community able to define how the decentralized platforms grow, while the token system gives platform developers and users new ways to make a profit.
For platforms like Decentraland, the Decentralized Autonomous Organization (DAO) – which is formed by users – takes charge of making decisions such as charging fees, token allocation to development efforts, and replacing members who are responsible for tasks such as contract security.
Yet, the decentralized platforms are more likely to attract people who share the same values as the DAO members and existing users.
From a diversity, equity and inclusion standpoint, the crowdsourced process is hard to plan and execute a holistic and long-term DEI strategy to reach users from various backgrounds.
Moreover, the process to fix any issues is relatively slow, so when things go wrong, it will take a longer time for decentralized platforms to work around.
Take Luna’s meltdown as an example, the proposal to save the Terra network from the issues took about seven days to get alignment from the community. Compared to Web 2 companies’ decision-making speed, this process was not efficient enough for a crisis of such magnitude.
A well-designed metaverse platform will enable users to experience lives beyond their own and be more empathetic about different people.
Users can switch their avatars to learn how it feels like to be another race, gender and even species. They can interact with people who are normally not in their communities.
With all the experiences mentioned above, we can foresee that our future generations will be more empathetic about different groups – it is easier for them to feel the pain and joy of other groups.
Experts believe that the metaverse will come to represent the next major computing platform, transforming consumer experience and business models across industries.
Fashion brands are one example. Over years, apparel companies have perfected the design, manufacture, and distribution of clothing to anticipate consumers’ wants and needs in line with seasonal changes. But today, most of their revenue is surpassed by the $3bn worth of sales of digital cosmetic items in Fortnite, which have a cultural significance that extends far into the physical world.
This is one of the economic opportunities of the metaverse – the possibility to “assetize” digital content, creating a framework of digital ownership for users. If it is replicated at scale and across sectors, then entire industries will be reshaped by changes to their traditional value chains.
However, the promise relies on the advancement of several key technologies, including augmented, virtual and mixed reality (collectively known as XR), as well as blockchain, connected devices and artificial intelligence. How should these be governed in a way that promotes their economic upsides while protecting individuals’ safety, security and privacy?
The World Economic Forum is bringing together leading voices from the private sector, civil society, academia and government to address this precise question. Over the next year, it will curate a multistakeholder community focusing on metaverse governance and economic and social value creation.
It will recommend regulatory frameworks for good governance of the metaverse and study how innovation and value creation can be strengthened for the benefit of society. Updates will be published on the World Economic Forum website on a regular basis.
Moreover, a good metaverse platform will provide future generations more freedom to be themselves. People who are tired of how others treat them because of their identities can take a break on Metaverse platforms.
However, the underlying premise of all the above merits is that the metaverse platforms are well-designed. Consideration of DEI issues needs to be embedded from day one.
Jane Lu, Global Shaper, Taipei Hub
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.
Diversity, equity and inclusion issues need to be taken into account in the design of Metaverse platforms to ensure an equitable experience for all users.
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