Inequity in the Metaverse - how brands can prioritize multicultural marketing in virtual worlds
How some Web3 projects are trying to design for multiculturalism and diversity that includes everyone in the new internet.
In the metaverse, everyone can go Nowhere. The developers of Nowhere, a browser-based 3D meetup platform, made it so people don’t need a crypto wallet or NFT to join; there are NFT integrations, but it’s not a requirement, which lowers the technical—and financial—boundaries.
“Anyone with a link, and a click, can come in,” Ana Constantino, co-founder of Nowhere, told Ad Age during a recent meet-up at the virtual space.
Nowhere is like an amalgamation of the audio-streaming app Clubhouse, with different rooms hosted by users, and Zoom, the video conference platform.
In Nowhere, people pop in by video, framed by digital nonagons, which they maneuver around the site to go toward and away from other people in rooms. The sound is 3D: When a person approaches a conversation, it gets louder, and the noise recedes the farther away they move.
Nowhere seems low tech, but that’s intentional, so people in countries with fewer high-powered computers can participate. Its founders say it is a nod to the need for multiculturalism in the coming metaverse, where there is a risk that high-priced NFTs and expensive computing gadgetry could limit participation, unless early adopters like Nowhere give the underserved an entry point. Nowhere is undoubtedly a Web3 platform, since it can link to crypto wallets to implement cryptogating, which lets private rooms control who enters based on whether they are holders of a particular NFT.
Constantino, a member of the LGBTQ+ community and originally from Brazil, said that the concept for Nowhere was to create an online world that erases boundaries. “We believe culture and society benefit when people are together,” Constantino said.
Nowhere has about 12,000 members, Constantino said, and many are in the Web3 ecosystem. Google, Salesforce and Coindesk employees have held Nowhere meetups, for example, Constantino said.
Nowhere represents the building blocks of the metaverse, where early adopters want to make a new internet that alleviates the problems of the old one. Web 2.0 was characterized by social media apps and mobile devices run by companies like Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple.
They became known as “walled gardens” because they locked their users in and tightly controlled the experience. Web3 adherents are developing decentralized platforms on principles of interoperability, transparency and accessibility. And they want everyone to have a voice in a way that promotes principles of multiculturalism, so that it’s not just a select few who own the NFT land and have a voice to establish crypto ground rules.
But some people are worried about the direction of the early metaverse, and whether it truly welcomes everyone. Constantino points to the gold rush happening in NFT real estate, where sites like Decentraland and The Sandbox sell virtual land for thousands of dollars. “That creates exactly the problems that exist in the real world,” Constantino said, “that push out people who don’t have the assets, replicating the problems in the virtual world.”
The metaverse could fall short of its ideals. Web3’s early builders could install the same people in positions of power today; typically white men in tech. There are concerns that companies like Meta, formerly Facebook, could develop virtual reality platforms and crypto communities with the same monopolistic appetite they displayed conquering social media. And the same divisions exposed in Web 2.0, disharmony through social media, will replicate unless metaverse founders stop it from the start.
“Some [projects are] not accessible,” Constantino said. “They are going to be for small clubs and then lose the potential, that is, to discover new people and new experiences.”
There is, however, a groundswell of supporters pushing for a truly multicultural Web3. Nowhere, for one, promises it will always have a free version, although the business charges for some added features, Constantino said.
There also are NFT communities that embrace inclusivity in their design concepts. DeadFellaz is one of the more popular NFT projects on OpenSea, the Web3 marketplace, and the creators intentionally made the avatars with an eye toward cultural sensitivity, according to a co-founder, named Betty. (Betty is a pseudonym for the Australia-based co-creator, who has never revealed her identity—part of the anonymity that sometimes is associated with Web3.) DeadFellaz is an NFT collection of 10,000 characters based on variations of 450 traits, and the avatars look like undead cartoons. “The reason I actually created DeadFellaz, to start off with, was that I wanted to fill a void that I felt myself,” Betty said in a recent interview with Ad Age.
Betty said most of the NFT projects she encountered were straight out of gaming culture and oversexualized. “The representation, as a woman, was almost through offensive stereotypes,” Betty said.
DeadFellaz is a “brand born of NFTs,” Betty said. The project combined hand-drawn designs with a computer program to generate thousands of DeadFellaz. Betty said that the basic design elements were vetted to ensure that none of the characteristics were offensive or appropriated culture. DeadFellaz are diverse even if they are green zombies.
“A lot of the bias in the real world has followed us in Web3,” Betty said, “because we’re the same people just in a different setting.”
Betty points to a common saying among the Web3 and NFT elite: WAGMI, which means, “we’re all going to make it.” Sometimes she’s not so sure.
“In the Web3 space we have this idealistic approach,” Betty said. “We’re all going to make it. ‘WAGMI’ is the thing that is touted a lot. I think that it’s unrealistic in a lot of ways.”
But, at the same time, there is camaraderie and promise in the new community, Betty said. “The opportunities that arise for people, it’s complete creative liberation.”
Karen Baker, president of Boston-based marketing agency Boathouse, said that her clients have a lot of discussions about how to ensure Web3 is a multicultural space. And Baker said she talks with artists and web designers who want to bring more diversity into their teams.
There is an urgency, Baker said, for “design justice,” which is the principle that diverse voices help build fairer technology from the ground up. The concept has only gained in importance since 2020, coinciding with the racial reckoning in the U.S. following the police killing of George Floyd.
“Design justice is when people who have been marginalized, unrepresented, have the opportunity to have a seat at the table, to actually guide how things are developed in technology,” Baker said. “So it allows them to be the lead in how things look and are improved. So it’s more than just social good, it’s actually being able to use more human-centered design to make sure that everyone is represented inside of the metaverse.”
Even with all the attention on social justice, the tech world is struggling, Baker said. “It doesn’t seem to be having an impact yet.”
Katie Burke, the metaverse co-lead at Accenture Interactive, said that she is optimistic about the potential for the metaverse to facilitate more participation, not less. Burke pointed to R&B singer Ashanti, who recently helped co-found a startup called EQ Exchange, a woman-owned Web3 platform. “Emerging players building the critical blocks of Web3 are committing to multiculturalism,” Burke said.
The promise of Web3 is that it can be accessed from anywhere, opening opportunities across the world and across cultures, Burke said. “People are no longer limited to opportunity by their place of birth, society or appearances, and the metaverse, if anything, will and has enabled equality,” Burke said.
Baker agreed that a fully functioning metaverse could change the way we look at multiculturalism. “Take a Lego movie for instance–people are yellow, they’re blue, they’re red, they’re orange. So when you talk about multicultural, [the metaverse] can be a whole other way we look at multicultural.”