By Lucy Thorpe
omen are woefully underrepresented in tech (it’s thought that just 19% of those working in tech are women, with an even lower percentage when it comes to women and men of colour). We’ve already seen this lack of representation lead to issues with the development of AI tools, facial recognition, e-commerce, search engines and chatbots.
By creating these digital tools through one lens of experience, without the diverse voice and knowledge that comes from a variety of backgrounds and communities, they’re inherently built with bias. This may mean that these interconnected virtual worlds have a serious disconnect when it comes to their audience.
“Around 40% of female gamers have experienced abuse from male gamers online, with 28% experiencing sexual harassment in the form of objectifying comments, death or rape threats”
“It’s reported that women are currently investing in NFTs at half the rate of men. This runs the risk of taking the income disparities and gender pay gap that exists offline straight into the Metaverse.”
Building The Metaverse
Brands, marketers and those in tech are predicting that this move towards the metaverse, AR and VR will change the way we live, work, entertain ourselves and socialise. But what does that mean for the rest of us?
The metaverse isn’t just one place and won’t exist on a single platform. Instead, it's a series of virtual worlds and digital spaces, using virtual reality, augmented reality headsets, avatars and world building to create an interactive online ecosystem. It’s the next evolution of the internet - developed by individuals, brands and creatives - and will make up a significant part of Web3.
Keely Adler, Vice President and Cultural Futurist at DentsuMB suggests that education and involvement in the development of the metaverse is essential to build a more inclusive space.
She said: “It’s been awesome to see the growing number of women investors, artists, and creators engaging in the crypto space and making waves in Web3; but there remains a huge gap — one that’s even bigger than the gap that exists in more traditional spaces. So right now, one of the biggest opportunities is education. Getting more women and non-binary folks in on the conversation and interested in playing a role in the future is essential.”
Making money in metaverse
It’s reported that women are currently investing in NFTs at half the rate of men. This runs the risk of taking the income disparities and gender pay gap that exists offline straight into the metaverse. The effect of this further widens the inequalities in areas such as property ownership in the metaverse - the cost of virtual land has skyrocketed and can cost anywhere from $6,000 to $4.3 million.
Justin Hochberg, CEO of Virtual Brand Group said: “There are unlimited ways to create revenue opportunities using decentralised technology that anyone can innovate on. For example, no one controls the NFT market, platform software is free to let anyone build games on and a decentralised group of investors are coming together to purchase real world assets. With a decentralised set of technologies like the metaverse, where no one owns it, it’s all about community and anybody can become part of the community without a barrier to entry.”
This was echoed by Vice President of Marketing at tech firm Revieve, Juan Oliva, who said: “NFT’s offer opportunities to own land which can then be rented out to brands and individuals for events or for gaming - it’s a new type of passive income. There are also opportunities with blockchain, which anonymises data and levels out the playing field.”
Gaming, luxury goods, fashion, beauty and retail - many areas which target women as their key focus - are all predicted to be big in the metaverse, with early-adopter brands like Balenciaga, Louis Vuitton, Gucci and P&G falling into those categories. Some brands are even collaborating to create crossovers that blend two industries that wouldn’t usually be seen together in the digital space, such as collabs between gaming and makeup. But do women really want to just be consumers of digital products instead of the creators?
Despite around 46% of gamers identifying as women, the gaming industry has a reputation for being patriarchal and misogynistic. Around 40% of female gamers have experienced abuse from male gamers online, with 28% experiencing sexual harassment in the form of objectifying comments, death or rape threats.
This seems to be extending to the metaverse already. Despite being in it’s infancy, the metaverse is already a space where women are being groped - even in the beta testing phase - and virtual rape has also been reported. This has led to Meta introducing a personal boundary system, creating an invisible virtual barrier around each person to avoid invasion of digital personal space.
Tameka Linnell, Senior Vice President and Head of Cultural Fluency at advertising agency DentsuMB said: “Misogyny and inequity are baked into the DNA of so many dominant players in gaming and VR. We’re kidding ourselves if we think that all of the utopian talk, the billions of dollars in investment and the sci-fi like images littering our feeds are going to change the system. A lack of diversity and representation in the real world will filter through to the new one - these are real issues that real people are dealing with everyday.”
When it comes to protecting the rights of women and other under-represented groups in the metaverse, Keely Adler added: “We protect the rights of under-represented groups in the metaverse in the same way as we do in the real world. We listen to them, we believe them, we ensure they’re involved in the creation of these technologies – and the necessary solutions – from the very start. If we want the metaverse to be better, we have to do better.”
"Misogyny and inequity are baked into the DNA of so many dominant players in gaming and VR. We’re kidding ourselves if we think that all of the utopian talk, the billions of dollars in investment and the sci-fi-like images littering our feeds are going to change the system."
It’s predicted that by 2035, as many as half of all adult relationships will start out online. This timeline may now be even shorter, following the online dating boom during the pandemic and the rapid growth of the metaverse. Friendships are also increasingly conducted online. Despite the communities that exist for women both online and offline, women are more likely to feel lonely than men.
When it comes to being connected, but feeling disconnected, Tameka Linnell points out a key difference: “Connectedness isn’t the same as having a sense of belonging. Reflecting on Meta and how the premise of Facebook was originally connection and community; nearly two decades since it came on the scene we’re now grappling with loneliness, lack of self esteem, body image issues, depression, anxiety and increased rates of suicide. We need to change the model in web3 and ask ourselves a different set of questions that focus on belonging and intentionally embed that from the star”
There’s a darker side to the increased anonymity and the ability to completely reinvent that comes with virtual worlds and relationships. We’ve already seen men being abusive towards their AI chatbot “girlfriends” online, so what happens when it’s no longer a digital representation and there’s an IRL person involved?
In an age where people can be deceived by partners (or ex partners) using fake identities online to gaslight, abuse and stalk, there’s the unfortunate potential for the metaverse to take this to the next step. Think “Tinder Swindler” but with the ability to construct an entire digital persona that exists in real-time rather than through voice notes and Instagram Stories.
Health and Happiness
Women are already more likely to have issues with their mental health and body image. Social media, image editing and filters have all had an impact on self-esteem. Will the ability to create your own avatar and identity online change the narrative on appearance or will it push women further down the quest for digitally-modified perfection?
Fast fashion retailer PLT have launched their first digital model, to both congratulations and criticism. The criticism centred on unattainable beauty standards, ignoring what their audience wants and what it means for jobs. As well as body image, a move to virtual models and virtual fashion could impact on the creative industries - what happens to the models, photographers, creative directors, makeup artists, runners and bookers who would usually be involved IRL?
Virtual models and influencers are nothing new - Lil Miquela and Shudu have been around for a while now - will obviously become more prevalent in the metaverse, making the “trendification” of body types and culture as easy as the click of a button. People have already embraced fillers, filters - around 90% of young women use a filter every time they post - and digital editing. It’s likely that this will continue in the metaverse.
This digital exaggeration has traditionally been the same in the gaming community. Early female characters were often sexualised, exaggerated caricatures of women that were created under the male gaze. Let’s hope the representation of women in the metaverse is more realistic.
Amelie Noble, CEO of Al Dente, a creative agency who work with luxury fashion brands such as Louis Vuitton, Balenciaga and Fendi as they make their moves into the metaverse, said that luxury brands are looking to build these communities and experience online, but that authenticity is an essential part of the approach.
She stressed the importance of brands building their metaverse platforms with a diverse perspective, including women and different cultural identities, particularly when it comes to online community and identity, adding: “We’re broadly seeing two types of avatars in the metaverse - those who build avatars that look like themselves and those who use avatars to completely redesign and rebuild their appearance, regardless of gender, race or offline identity. It allows people to be whatever they want.”
Tameka Linnell added: “The patents that Meta has filed, race, gender, and every detail down to our eye movements will be present in the metaverse as they have conceived of it. We can address people through pronouns that are more aligned with how they identify. This goes beyond race and gender - size, ability, sexual orientation.”
“Our identity shouldn’t be something that we shed at the virtual door. That will not change the structural inequities that exist in society or in the metaverse. It’s also important to bear in mind that this technology is more than just fun, games and commerce. When applied to industries such as healthcare - which has the potential to thrive in the metaverse - our identities matter a lot.”
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