Opinion: Metaverse – The shiny little toy that may be too dangerous right now

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Mayur Milan, Director - Brand communication & Digital, Ideosphere Consulting shares his insights on how Metaverse is plagued with various data and user-safety challenges that need to be addressed by the entire digital community.

In the not-too-distant future, the internet as we know it today will be a thing of the past. The new hot potato is the Metaverse, a 3D virtual immersive world where people can meet, socialize, and do business. Big businesses are incredibly excited about it because it provides a new way to reach and interact with their customers.

In theory, a virtual world concept is not new. Second Life, a game launched in 2003, was our first taste of virtual life. It allowed individuals to create their avatars, make friends, and possibly live a completely different life in a parallel world. The difference is that these universes have now become immersive with AR and VR technology and are life-like.

But with such immersive and life-like experiences come the challenges of these platforms.

Not so virtual anymore

In late 2021, a female beta tester of Horizon Worlds – the virtual world created by Meta, reported being sexually assaulted in the virtual space. She added that people there supported the act, making her feel even more unsafe. Meta responded to the incident by directing people to their built-in safety tools. But the possibility of failure will always remain, which can and will lead to such incidences. As the saying goes, "where there's a will, there's a way." And so, it is up to us to be vigilant and use these tools wisely. And not just women but all genders have also faced sexual assault in the virtual world.

Such incidents have two layers of complexity. First is the mental, emotional, and physical trauma that an individual may face post the incident. These virtual worlds are designed to create an almost real experience with the support of ever-improving digital devices. Unlike a dream where you wake up to realize that it was not happening, in the Metaverse, you are well and truly awake. The psychological impact is as real as it can be. 

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Now you see me

In 2016 a lady was sexually assaulted in an online virtual reality game. Her note about the incident started a debate ranging from dismissing to questioning if it was an assault as she was physically not there. So how do we deal with real-world issues in a virtual world? The second layer arises from the fact that while the definitions of such acts remain the same, do we have laws and structures to deal with them? What deterrents are there? Currently, very few. 

The safety of children online has always been a significant area of concern. Any mass adoption of the Metaverse can only happen once we are confident that we are not creating another trap that the predators can exploit. With no laws currently in place to protect the adult community in virtual setups, bringing children on board is not even an option. 

The other central concern with the Metaverse is the pitfalls of online trolling. Trolling in the current setup of social media is restricted to verbal abuse. Although the numbers are big, these are primarily faceless people hiding behind a screen. But a physical manifestation of the same in the Metaverse will have a completely different impact. It is like taking playground bullying and multiplying it a million times. Many examples of people quitting social media platforms because of verbal trolling and threats. How will this play out in the Metaverse? 

Data in the time of the Metaverse

Another possible issue waiting to transcend from the real world to the virtual world is data safety. With a mobile telephony boom leading to more and more people using digital platforms, data safety and theft have been significant challenges. With the Metaverse, this challenge takes a new form, which is more complicated than before. Because people create avatars, leakage or data theft, or an unintentional reveal of true identity or personal information by an individual or via a data breach can compromise an individual in the real world. 

The future of social media and digital engagement in virtual worlds. There is no denying it. The promise to meet someone far away, to not be alone in possible future lockdown, or the joy of witnessing a sporting event one could not go to earlier, is too much to resist. But it will need considerable effort from the creators.

Simply putting a safety tool will not be enough. A collaborative effort in understanding the needs and making real and virtual world adjustments is imperative before the Metaverse can safely be mass adopted.

This article is authored by Mayur Milan, Director Brand Communication and Digital, Ideosphere Consulting.

Disclaimer: The opinions shared in the article are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the publication.

data metaverse Ideosphere Consulting Mayur Milan