5th January 2022
Said differently, how do we design the metaverse to ensure the misinformation, radicalization and human safety crisis that we’re facing online today doesn’t become coded in even more visceral, near-physical experiences?
In hopes of gaining answers to what I think is one of the biggest challenges technologists need to address, The Female Quotient held a panel called The Metaverse, What The Heck Is It and Here Are The Women Leading It. While the panel didn’t land the ethical design of an internet that blends physical and digital (and it’s a topic far too complex for a 30 minute discussion), it did uncover three key principles of what I think the responsibly designed metaverse should include.
First, is empathy – which can only come from more proximity to folks who have been disproportionately harmed by online abuse and harassment. Nonny de la Pena, dubbed the “godmother” of VR, spoke about her research which found that men who identify as men but use feminine-presenting avatars are “shocked” when they are digitally harassed. With 76% of girls and women reporting being harassed online, this should be shocking to no-one but de la Pena pointed out the empathy that can happen when folks who don’t face these issues are forced to. She also created a virtual Guantanamo Bay in 2007, one of the first examples of immersive journalism, so her work centers on emerging media to create more human empathy. Designing empathy-driven experiences is a massive opportunity for brands, especially for ones who have a clearly defined purpose that can solve human problems. However, it poses a challenge to technologists to ensure they’re designing experiences that don’t compound further harm that the first two waves of the internet have.
Second, is inclusion. The panel highlighted the growth of intersectionally diverse women at the forefront of emerging technology, a slow, albeit steady, change from the early days of the internet where women have been systemically excluded from leadership roles. The responsibly designed metaverse must be created by people who reflect the diverse reality of our real world, not just cis-het, non-disabled (mostly) white men, who are the singular owners of the Platform Age today.
Finally, is creating safe forums for expression. The panelists briefly discussed how to manage safe identity expression in the metaverse, to which Irene-Marie Seelig – CEO of AmanXR – highlighted how their platform “defies the laws of physics” and helps people present in their own “aesthetic”. Imagine any brand that has an impact on self-expression, such as cosmetics, clothing or personal care brands, using the metaverse to enable people to safely express facets of their identity that could be marginalized in real life based on geographic or income barriers. For example, LGBTQ+ folks, in a responsibly designed metaverse, can express their queerness through aesthetic features digitally when the real world might not be accepting. Could the metaverse help defy typical oppressive structures and could brands be patrons of that liberation?
While the panel had brief highlights of designing for equality and equity, I was left craving more. The conversations around the metaverse are largely around the revolution to work, entertainment, and media – but the most exciting part of the metaverse could be the inclusivity it could bring - or, if designed irresponsibly, the exclusion it could harbor.
Written by Rachel Lowenstein, Global Managing Director, Inclusive Innovation