Why diversity must be built into the fabric of the metaverse

As part of The Drum’s Metaverse Deep Dive, Amplify’s Rosie Copland-Mann argues that diversity + inclusion is too important to leave to the platforms building the metaverse to implement...

Published by: The Drum
Written by: Rosie, Copland-Mann
Date: 01/01/2022

At the end of last year, Meta unveiled its vision for the future. A ‘diverse’ digital world where we work and play together. A world where we’ll have amazing experiences, make loads of money and all our data will be protected.

But if we’re not even close to living in a physical or digital world where everyone is represented equally and has the same opportunities, why would the metaverse be any different? We need to pause and make real change. We need to create a set of principles that determine how we make this new space truly diverse. Because if we don’t, we risk sleepwalking into another toxic chapter of the digital world, with potentially worse consequences.

Avatars and identity

The metaverse doesn’t technically exist yet, but if we look to the future, the goal is for there to be shared virtual spaces for humans to connect, interact, express themselves and do things they do in the physical world – only virtually (working, entertainment, communication etc). So we should design it with humans in mind.

One of the exciting things about the metaverse is the creative freedom and opportunities we have with self-expression, but this demands an incredibly important conversation about identity politics. This new digital world provides us with the ability to express ourselves as fictional characters that don’t exist in real life, but equally users should be given the tools to create avatars that look most like their IRL self. We’ve seen people who don’t feel there are avatars to represent their identity, such as gender, race, body size etc, resorting to presenting themselves as characters, aliens or animals in the gaming world through necessity.

And although we’ve seen improvement with examples like Bitmoji and Meta Avatars offering ranges of skin tone, body shape, physical ability, age, there are still companies lagging behind, not providing non-binary options, skin tone variations, hair textures, cultural dress and more. There are communities having essential conversations and paving the way for change by creating initiatives that drive representation, inclusivity and democratize digital fashion, art and self-expression in the metaverse, such as World of Women, Digi-Gxl and The Institute of Digital Fashion.

Tag Warner, chief executive of Gay Times, told me: “When social platforms exploded, many LGBTQ+ people found a space in media not previously afforded to them. The result was a significant increase in visibility and conversation around queer themes. However, the ’move-fast, break things’ attitude that gave rise to the major players also came with unfathomable real-world implications. We simply cannot afford to allow the safeguards to follow the platform this time. There is too much at stake.“

The impact of prejudices and privileges

While we don’t currently know how things will play out when it comes to self-expression in this new space, we can pre-empt behaviors or situations that may occur. When it comes to gender, there can be real positives as people can experiment with identity in an anonymous and safe space, devoid of the prejudices and privileges that exist in the physical world. However, especially with race, there is real concern that people will abuse this freedom to appropriate, emulate or imitate cultures they know little about, fueling modern social problems such as ‘blackfishing’, ‘identity tourism’ or even making way for predatory or abusive activity.

The people behind the scenes

One of the ways we can make the metaverse diverse and inclusive is by starting with the people who are creating it. If we look at the people currently building in this space, it’s mostly white male developers. Although this is slowly changing, only 24% of game developers are women – and gender is only part of the story. In order to create a truly diverse world, we need a diverse group of people creating and developing these experiences to ensure that they avoid bias and in turn the perpetuation of stereotypes.

An example of this is ensuring inclusive terminology is used when talking about the end user – the end user is often referred to as ’he’ instead of ’they’, which can drive harmful gender stereotypes. We’ve also seen harmful bias when it comes to programming – MIT computer scientist Joy Buolomwini showed that facial recognition software performs worse on women and even more so on women with darker faces.

Opportunity for change

As always, a lot of the responsibility will fall on tech giants to ensure they are building with diversity and inclusion at the forefront of their strategy. We can’t control that, but there is something we can control. One of the most exciting things about the metaverse is that it is deregulated and democratized in a way we’ve never seen before. With access to the internet, a 15-year-old theoretically now has the same power to create, distribute and learn about web3 as a brand does.

In fact, some brands are still stuck with traditional mindsets, whereas this new wave of creatives know what’s possible and are writing the new rules. Take, for example, Fewocious, the 18-year-old trans artist who has sold their life story through NFTs for $2.1m. Recruitment and training needs a step up. We need diverse teams concepting and creating to build a shared language and an inclusive space. The best thing brands stepping into the metaverse could do right now is to hire, empower, listen to and learn from a diverse body of creatives and developers.

Inclusion isn’t a buzzword. It’s essential. Not just for users, but for you to succeed as a brand. Because if you don’t create experiences that allow people to reflect themselves and only check diversity and inclusion off as part of a corporate workshop, it will be noticed by consumers more than ever and you’ll fail. If we build the metaverse, gaming and fashion technology with inclusivity in mind, we have a chance at creating a better world (even if it is a virtual one).

Rosie Copland-Mann is a senior creative strategist at Amplify.

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