The tech industry disappointing track record on diversity issues can have serious consequences when the metaverse comes along.
For years, tens of millions of people of color have endured unwanted experiences on social media platforms built by mostly white and male tech CEOs, including intimidation and hate speech† Many users have also contributed regularly ignored or copied without attribution†
If these issues follow users to the metaverse, a concept largely championed by those same mostly white and male tech CEOs, today’s online abuse could become significantly more visceral and damaging.
“If you don’t have people at the table who have suffered harm or abuse in the past, or who have to live with certain things in mind, then you’re not building platforms in a way that protects those people,” said Jeff Nelson, co-founder founder and chief technology officer of blavity, an online media company targeting black millennial creators. “You build platforms that can be used by people who want to harm others, [and can] do that on a large scale.”
The tech industry has spent a decade publicly deal with his diversity problem† Yet Black and Hispanic Workers Hold Out only 7% and 8% of computer worker roles in the US, although they represent 11% and 17% of the country’s total workforce, respectively, according to the Pew Research Center.
If the companies building the metaverse have different voices, Nelson says, it will be hard to avoid the same problems experienced by today’s social media users — including more than 80 million Americans of color, according to a CNBC Make It analysis by Pew data†
“If we make the same mistakes as we did with social networking and web 2.0… we’re just bringing that problem into this new space,” Nelson says. “So it’s definitely a problem.”
The metaverse didn’t get off to a good start. Studies of virtual world gaming platforms such as VRChat have evidence found of minors who are regularly exposed to racist, violent language and harassment in the virtual worlds. These kinds of experiences can be full-blown attacks on users’ mental health, psychologists say:†
For Nelson, it’s an extension of the existing problems people of color have faced on social media for years — and a sign that metaverse platforms aren’t ready for the kind of abuse their users can inflict on each other.
He tries to force change with Blavity. Each year, his company hosts a conference called AfroTech, which helps bring “mass exposure to black people in technology and entrepreneurship and professional development,” Nelson says.
When Covid hit, AfroTech went virtual – resulting in what Nelson calls the “first black metaverse ever.” That’s more than just branding, he adds: The more black people make their mark on the metaverse today, the more the developers building those future platforms know to intentionally create more welcoming virtual spaces.
“Creating worlds within the metaverse, creating content, creating art, all those things are efforts that are important to us as we think about the metaverse and ensure that black people are fairly represented in this future,” says Nelson.
There’s evidence that some tech giants are listening — or at least saying they are.
Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg almost single-handedly turned “metaverse” into the tech world’s most vibrant concept in the past year. His company has also faced criticism for having suppressed the accounts and content of black creators in the past Instagram and Facebook to take steps to better support the past year and promote Black creators on Meta’s platforms.
Facebook has dedicated to spend $1 billion each year on “various suppliers,” including $100 million annually with Black-owned companies. And Meta says it keeps diversity in mind while building its own version of the metaverse.
“As companies like Meta are now starting to think about this future, we have the opportunity to help build the diversity, equality and inclusion (DEI) metaverse from scratch,” said Maxine Williams, Chief Diversity Officer of Meta, wrote in a blog post in February.
Online gaming company Roblox, another company that is betting big on the metaverse, regularly promotes its creators of color. According to Julian Walshaw-Vaughan, a vice president of engineering at Roblox and recipient of a Blacks in Gaming Prize last year, the company’s business model depends on it.
“Our hope is, if we can provide everyone in the world with a platform to learn important skills as developers and engineers, in addition to the ability to express themselves creatively and easily publish content, it will have an impact on the technology industry in overall and result in more diverse and representative shared experiences,” he says.
These kinds of statements are positive signals for a more inclusive, metaverse future. But for Nelson, seeing is believing.
“Honestly, I haven’t seen enough,” he says.
Nelson says the easiest way for tech companies to make a difference is obvious: hire.
Right now, he says, tech companies often encourage diversity in their workplaces by hiring people of color in the same places they get most of their employees: Stanford or the Ivy Leagues. For example, Meta’s Williams studied at Yale University, according to her LinkedIn profile.
†[That’s] pay lip service to diversity,” says Nelson. “Companies don’t bring in people who challenge the culture. They bring in people who will kind of assimilate or fit in with their preconceived idea of how they should work.”
That kind of change may need to happen soon, as companies like Meta, Apple, Roblox, and Microsoft continue to build the next iteration of the web — even if the metaverse itself can take yearsif not decades, to become mainstream reality.
“The metaverse is a perfect opportunity to do better,” says Nelson. “I’m confident because it’s so early and we’re having these conversations [now] — instead of us having this conversation in five years, and it’s about, ‘The metaverse isn’t welcoming. How can we solve this?'”
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