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Thinking of Becoming a Metaverse Pioneer? Be Sure to Bring Armor

January 19, 2022
By Alexander Lyall and Hanna Pierce

Over the past year, interest and investment in the metaverse category has exploded. While the metaverse is still in its infancy, companies are starting to carve out early digital footholds as they explore how to create compelling virtual experiences for their audiences. While being a metaverse pioneer may appear to be a win-win for a brand looking to demonstrate their “avant-gardism,” this new frontier is not shielded from the risks and social issues that companies are facing in our non-digital world.

The fully-fledged metaverse(s) is still developing yet it’s widely recognized that it will include virtual and interconnected technologies that makeup a digital world. Already, early entrants are using Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR), and blockchain technologies to offer glimpses into a full metaverse experience. Some of the areas already testing this space include fintech, gaming, virtual work and remote education. In many ways, the metaverse will mirror or intersect with our own. Unfortunately, that may also include mirroring the issues for which companies must prepare.

At a time in which consumers expect companies to operate ethically and partnerships are being perceived as endorsements, brands should understand the myriad risks and issues that come with being a metaverse pioneer. By doing so, they not only have an opportunity to protect their brand from potential pitfalls and negative incidents, but they can also help steer this new world in a way that truly reflects their ESG goals and DE&I commitments.

Metaverse Safety

Similar to other platforms that facilitate the sharing of ideas in a virtual space, the policing of online behaviors poses a significant risk for brands that enable them. The technologies that make metaverse more immersive, like text and voice features, may increase online harassment and the dissemination of misinformation, disinformation and extremist content. Last month, a beta tester claimed she was virtually “groped” in a newly rolled out VR platform highlighting the developing concern over online safety. While the platform has explained the user did not utilize the built-in safety features, digital environments can present dangers as they allow strangers to interact, often anonymously.

Metaverse Environmental Impact

Another chief concern is the impact of the metaverse on the environment. Data center processing has a negative environmental impact because of electricity usage and subsequent carbon emissions. While the environmental impact of the metaverse is still being understood, one could look at the impact of digital currency and cryptomining. Digital currency and cryptomining require a vast amount of energy – bitcoin alone has an emission footprint comparable to the country of New Zealand, producing 36.95 megatons of carbon dioxide annually according to conservative estimates.

It is also worth noting that the metaverse shares the same risks as other services that utilize hardware, networks and payment tools, including the ongoing supply chain interruptions and threats of malware. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that cybercriminals are seizing the chance to take advantage of unwary consumers. For instance, cybercriminals have posed as high-profile brands through domain spoofing and used fraudulent smart contracts to gain access to consumers’ cryptocurrency wallets.

Metaverse Equality and Access

Existing societal issues are already appearing in the digital world and exacerbated in the real one through the technologies that makeup the metaverse. Firstly, equal access is an emerging concern as the infrastructure and tools needed to engage with the digital world have high-upfront costs. Unfortunately, a significant global population will be excluded from the metaverse without access to high-speed internet connection and equipment like AR glasses and VR headsets that support the immersive experience.

Inside the metaverse, systemic societal issues including racism, sexism and classism are already surfacing in some corners of the virtual world. For example, price differences for digital avatars based on race, skin tone and gender have emerged among NFT collections in recent months as the market’s largest demographic moves to buy skins that look like themselves, driving up the cost of white, male avatars.

Central to the metaverse is the idea of ownership as NFTs (non-fungible tokens) limit how many people can own a thing, thus creating its value. However, there is an ongoing concern regarding who owns the metaverse and what ownership of an NFT truly represents. Corporations that are perceived to be centralizing the metaverse and failing to allow digital ownership will face backlash. Already, there are a host of legal questions for brands including user property rights and intellectual property issues.

5 Ways to Approach the Metaverse 

Given the metaverse is new for so many, no brand is expected to have the answers to all of these questions and concerns. However, consumers do expect that organizations be aware, informed and focused on (or committed to) becoming part of the solution. As organizations move forward, there are a few considerations they should keep in mind:

  • Brands should identify a platform’s content moderation measures before launching an online presence and take steps to bolster them, where needed. Just as companies have a responsibility to provide a safe environment for their real-world shoppers, they are similarly trusted in the metaverse.
  • Companies with public sustainability commitments should be prepared for the tough questions, particularly, how they plan to reconcile their sustainability goals with the environmental costs associated with the virtual world they are promoting.
  • Companies should be wary of falling victim to online schemes and have a duty to leverage their resources and expertise to educate consumers on the steps they should take to avoid potential traps.
  • Given that the metaverse has a barrier to access, companies should be careful that they are not furthering the inherent inequities of the platform and make efforts to ensure that the world they are helping to build is truly inclusive.
  • Lastly, companies should be wary of not forgetting their duties to society in the “earthverse.” Creating a new world is incredibly exciting, but there are still many areas that require resources and investment here in reality.