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The Web3 community has a duty to establish an ethical code to make the virtual landscape a safe place.
Imagine a world where a best-presented version of yourself can live out dreams in an open digital landscape. Experiences will be comprehensive and limited only by imagination. That is the draw of the metaverse.
The metaverse sees the convergence of social media, the internet and gaming in one place, and data serves as the DNA of the entire ecosystem. The rapidly advancing environment features customized avatars of the controlling users. Looking forward, artificial intelligence technology will take a few 2D images and render a whole 3D world around it. A captured photograph can become a very photorealistic humanoid avatar within seconds.
These avatars — the online projections of the best digital versions of ourselves — could serve to feed our own vanities. In the Web 2.0 world, there is a thriving culture that enables social media users to anonymously bully and harass each other via transgressions that would never take place face-to-face. This is also prevalent within gaming, where the mindset is that the ‘character’ is not representative of the real person playing.
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When that character does become a digitized replica of a real person — enabled through AI digitization — a user watching that digitized representation of themselves being mocked, beaten, or worse, will assuredly perceive such offenses far more negatively than the same action applied to a cartoonish avatar.
This new and developing ecosystem will pose ethical challenges to users and the brands that look to achieve a deeper connection and resonance with consumers in the metaverse. But before companies can begin to address the ethical challenges and new norms of interaction in a digital landscape, organizations must begin establishing the frameworks and context for dialogue.
This first step is in developing a set of core ethics principles and guidelines for the data that defines the current profile of the individual today. In establishing guidelines that serve as a day-to-day guidepost in decision-making, the organization begins to build its culture, a foundation that will be well served in an increasingly digital future.
Brands will want to participate in this space to be involved in consumers’ digital experiences, but will assuredly be cautious in association with an environment that is ethically compromised.
To date, we have yet to see ethical standards articulated and applied to the digital space, and the ecosystem looks only to get more complicated as we look to the future. It will be incumbent upon brands to define and impress upon the ecosystem the ethical norms that will be tolerated within those experiences.
Digital technology is moving at such a pace that legislation, and even society itself, can hardly keep up. The primary challenge is perhaps not the metaverse, but rather the mindset and expectations of the users that inhibit it. All involved in the digital Web3 community will have a duty to establish a code of ethical behavior to make the virtual landscape a safe place users will want to interact in.
Brands need to be educated in the metaverse’s potential as a new channel for marketing activation but also need to be ‘metaverse prepared’ for the capabilities and constructs that will be necessary to the governance and oversight of those new and diverse experiences.
As a starting point, many organizations bypass a true examination of their data ethics guidelines, as such efforts are often seen as an operational exercise of regulatory compliance and risk management.
Metaverse-curious brands need to understand that data compliance and data ethics are not synonymous. Data compliance establishes the expectations for brands to stay north of their data obligations. Data ethics provides internal clarity as to how the organization should behave with respect to customer data once the criteria for compliance have been achieved.
The data ethics conversation
The metaverse and other Web3 opportunities will only add increased complexity to the data ethics conversation. Awareness is the first touchstone to developing a set of data ethics principles and guidelines as a key preparatory tool. Brands need to “walk before they run,” conducting a thorough assessment of their current data ethics framework before they dive into the metaverse.
Tackling the topic of data ethics can be daunting for organizations, as the concept can feel academic and philosophical, devoid of the practical application and tactics that organizations need to communicate operationally.
Consumers are counting on brands to get future-ready and protect their digital identity. Just as they trust brands for quality, reliability or other attributes, consumers trust brands to build experiences and engagements in an ethical and professional manner. Having a tested and well-adopted infrastructure to address that inherent risk will put brands in good standing to future-proof themselves.
The capabilities that the metaverse can provide brands are far-reaching. While still in its early days, it is a growing and powerful marketing tool to engage with a whole new consumer base that is actively using the metaverse to connect with products and services.
Organizations may be inclined to side-step complex but important conversations around how they intend to contribute to an ethically sound metaverse. By starting a conversation today examining current data ethics principles and guidelines, brands will create a structure and framework for ongoing discussion as they look to more ambiguous and complex opportunities that Web3 will provide. Building internal rigor and experience in addressing those challenges will prove to be a key competitive advantage.
Future-proof your brand and get ready for the exciting opportunities that the metaverse presents.
Tom Corey is VP of consulting services in North America at Wunderman Thompson.