The fortunes of some of the world's most powerful tech companies have shifted dramatically in the last month. Following Elon Musk's takeover of Twitter, advertisers have fled the platform, and trolls have gone wild. Meta's layoff of over 11,000 employees following a revenue drop reflects overinvestment and miscalculation. Web 2.0 architects are now scrambling to figure out what went wrong in a system that they helped design.
Both Musk and Meta's Mark Zuckerberg acknowledged that the status quo must change for their platforms to have a future. While Musk pursues his "digital town square" vision, Zuckerberg is increasing his focus on immersive metaverse projects. With the industry estimated to be worth $825 billion by 2030, there has been no shortage of interest from businesses and brands looking to establish a presence in virtual worlds.
But, in addition to the commercial potential that Zuckerberg and others see in the metaverse, there is a social and cultural opportunity to improve on the real world — or risk perpetuating its problems.
An unreachable ecosystem
Despite claims of inclusivity, the majority of the metaverse is currently being built by a small group of about 160 companies, each for a similarly small group of users. Apart from obvious technological barriers like low internet bandwidth, the tools that enable immersion in the metaverse, such as VR headsets and high-end graphics cards, are prohibitively expensive for the majority of the world's internet users, regardless of geography or nationality.
Similarly, digital wallets present a significant barrier to users seeking to purchase tokens required to participate in virtual worlds. Crypto on-ramps favor those with traditional fiat banking access, making things miserable for many in developing countries.
Language is another barrier. While much of Web 2.0's user-facing infrastructure was built in English, the metaverse does not have to follow in those footsteps. Machine language and artificial intelligence textual models have the potential to create cross-lingual worlds capable of engaging and onboarding millions in some of the world's most digitally savvy populations, provided this is a mission rather than an afterthought.
Inequality of access and opportunity
These entry barriers have contributed not only to a user base that is unrepresentative of our societies but also to a lack of inclusive participation within the metaverse, resulting in worlds that are not designed for the majority.
If you walk into any of the major metaverse projects available today, you will be greeted by public displays of wealth in the form of NFT flex parades. Well-heeled collectors will pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to be simulated neighbors of celebrities, while brands are buying virtual land in the hopes of making a big profit when the metaverse becomes mainstream.
Defining a purpose other than profit
The metaverse suffers from a lack of inclusive participation. Its underlying technology can provide extraordinary utility for everyone. Consider education, where interactive forms of teaching could make learning more accessible to people who are unable to travel to school. VR programs could allow doctors to practice intricate, high-risk procedures before performing them on patients.
In other areas, it has the potential to revolutionize e-commerce or improve manufacturing processes. With so many variables in play, a plethora of diverse job opportunities will emerge to support these industries.
However, for the metaverse to live up to its full potential, brands, businesses, consumers, and regulators must move beyond the short-termism that has characterized much of our current Web 2.0 realities and look beyond profits. Builders of it must acknowledge that interoperability, rather than siloed virtual worlds, will decide the metaverse's success and that cooperation, rather than competition, will get us there.
This collaboration will take various forms, ranging from big brands channeling energy into onboarding a diverse range of users to ensuring smaller organizations are symbolized and have a say in the metaverse's evolution. And, while the decentralized nature means that there is no single authority, that doesn't mean there shouldn't be a shared sense of standards, ethics, and governance that allows self-regulation while eliminating the need for external control or interference. Principle-building, which is still in its early stages in some parts of the world, will be critical to the safe participation of all users.
We are at a tipping point in the evolution of the metaverse, and we need to take thoughtful, collective action to avoid recreating the legacy structures of Web 2.0.
Do we want the Web 2.0 bastions to build the metaverse as the next iteration of their crumbling platforms if it is going to reinvent our digital experiences in the coming years? Or do we want something better—something designed with people in mind rather than profits? Drop your comments by sharing this article on social media.