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As the metaverse becomes an inevitable part of our future, little is discussed about the ethical implications for marketers entering this new frontier. As we head into 2022, the conversation surrounding this new digital landscape will only accelerate and deepen, with its fair share of cheerleaders and skeptics. On the one hand, I read articles every day from fellow marketing executives salivating at the thought of advertising to people — mostly youth — in the metaverse. On the other, figures like Elon Musk, Charlamagne tha God and Scott Galloway are doubtful of or outright hostile to the hype behind things like Web3, DeFi, NFTs and, yes, the metaverse.
No matter which side you fall on, I think we can all agree that a serious discussion needs to be had about marketing in the metaverse. What disturbs me is the lack of both prudent, incisive articles about where the humanist line is, and questioning how far we are willing to invade any kind of space. As a digital marketer with decades of experience running an award-winning agency, I’ve seen how marketing has been radically transformed by technology — for the good and the bad.
Since 2001, I’ve built my business on lead intelligence. In that process, I’ve used technology that allows me to put tracking code on peoples’ devices to monitor their engagement levels and literally score them on certain behaviors. When they’re not behaving in a way that benefits my clients, it’s my job to use persuasive content to push them in a direction that would make them more likely buyers.
So I understand the powerful sword I’ve been wielding to sway and shape minds. In the most ideal sense, I’ve done it with the aim of getting the right message to the right people at the right time to make educated buying decisions. But as we’ve seen, the same tools and tactics that can be used for good are the same tools and tactics that have persuaded people to act on and believe in things they previously wouldn’t have. If we’re to gleefully step into a new world like the metaverse and the power is in the wrong hands, an important question must be raised: is this right? Can we go too far? And can the same tools that persuade in a noble way also be used to manipulate both impressionable people and, more critically, the youth?
The answer, simply put, is yes. We are just now coming to grips with the implications of huge social media platforms to steer discourse and impact the next generation’s mental health. Repeated intrusions into user privacy, rampant misinformation, and pinpoint-accurate political advertising has left regulators wondering about the extent to which, like telecoms, social media may need oversight. For the rest of us the question is: should the likes of Mark Zuckerberg, Microsoft and other Silicon Valley executives really be our shepherds into this brave new world?
A perfect storm: automation, UBI, and AI
While we linger on that question, let’s take it one step further to see why the metaverse may become a part of daily life. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve seen how automation coupled with the Great Resignation and remote work has changed how businesses will use human capital in the future. According to Tristan Harris, director of the Netflix hit The Social Dilemma, it’s almost inevitable that 30% of Americans could be “radically unemployable” within the next decade.
You’re starting to see this everywhere you look. Kiosks, self-checkout, and self-ordering on iPads are taking over retail and restaurants. The advent of self-driving cars could leave commercial truckers and Uber drivers without work. AI and robotics have even been rumored to someday replace radiologists and other medical personnel.
Only the most specialized, creative, and innovative jobs will retain some level of human touch and those employees can pivot during this sea change. But a large chunk of blue collar and service-sector professions, which together make up nearly 85% of American jobs, will suffer. As the number of permanently unemployed Americans balloons, there will need to be an ever-widening social safety net, including the once-ridiculed possibility of universal basic income (which Andrew Yang popularized during his 2020 campaign) along with expanded welfare, Medicare and related programs.
So how does this perfect storm of automation, AI and UBI play into the idea of the metaverse? Let’s remember where the origin of the term metaverse was coined: a 1992 science fiction novel titled Snow Crash where people were provided a refuge from the dystopian reality that they were living in in the form of digital avatars they could use to explore the online world.
Studies show Americans derive a lot of their meaning or purpose in life from work. The term “workism” is used to describe the phenomenon among Americans that work is not only a means to an economic end, but is a pillar of identity from which we derive much of our meaning. So how does a world where that’s increasingly absent look? And furthermore, where will we look for meaning? The metaverse could be that compelling place when it’s finally seamless: the moment where you can’t tell what’s real and what’s virtual. An alternate universe indistinguishable from your life.
Augmented reality is a prelude to this as I’ll discuss below, and stands in as a kind of boiling frog for our current situation where the failure to act against a problematic situation until it’s already too late is clear.
When all of this does unfold and tech giants make people painfully addicted to the metaverse, marketers will do what they do best: exploit our data, time, attention and privacy for profit.
Just because we can, should we? Lessons from Jurassic Park
“You were so preoccupied with whether or not you could, you didn’t stop to think if you should.” –– Dr. Ian Malcom from Jurassic Park
So here it is, the critical question about the metaverse that no one is asking: just because we can, should we? On a personal level, I wish that the metaverse wouldn’t exist; that the bad far outweighs the good in terms of mental health and the ever-widening divide in human contact. But I’m not naive enough to think that it’s anything but inevitable. Maybe not in its current form, but definitely in the future, the metaverse will be here to stay. What I do know is that whether this thing succeeds or fails will be because of people like me — marketers and advertisers yearning for exposure for our clients.
Let’s be clear: all social media platforms monetize their users by selling data to advertisers. If the metaverse was just a place where you could go ad-free, it wouldn’t be able to sustain itself — there’s no revenue. Therefore, people like me who are against it belong to a larger group of people who will keep it alive if everyday people make the choice to utilize it. Even if we market for noble purposes, it’ll just keep the metaverse alive long enough for the bad actors to come in and exploit the system.
Knowing my role in this, I don’t think that I’m in a position to demand that individuals not use the metaverse. What I am saying, though, is to act with caution. Know that you’re way more susceptible than you’ve ever been. And if you’re a marketer, know that the next shift of humanity could be radically changed by this platform if we don’t use it responsibly. Google’s motto was once Don’t be evil. With social media, we all gleefully dove in with no thought of consequences. This is our chance to not let history repeat itself.
It’s already too late to reverse the damage on current social media platforms. Let’s not make the same mistake twice. The power of history is when people learn from their mistakes, especially as we simply cannot fathom the power of this yet. Combined with AI and machine learning, the metaverse can quickly spiral out of our control by adapting to our next move in a way that is so incredibly scary. The pause between our response and the act is the only thing currently separating us from going down the path of destruction as fast as we can. But the adjustment will eventually be seamless, without a moral code to check or monitor it and ask: is this the right thing?
The pace of adoption
My hope is that the hardware issue in VR is slowing the pace of this down just enough for us to get our act together. Mass adoption hasn’t occurred yet, as evidenced by the sales numbers of the Oculus VR headset in comparison to more traditional, handheld competitors like the Nintendo Switch.
We saw the early failure of 3D TV eyewear for home use and in theatres. It was too cumbersome and made our eyes hurt. Even VR in its current form is uncomfortable and can make some feel sick to their stomach. As long as the hardware is a roadblock toward true mass adoption, things like VR and 3D TV will be fun to dabble in as a novelty and little else.
But while everyone is waiting for a truly immersive and fully-sensory VR experience, I believe that the gateway drug for entering the metaverse will be augmented reality or AR. People will buy into this as they’ve done with the wildly-popular Pokémon Go or in recent museum exhibits, and AR will pave the way until VR is seamless. AR breaks the barrier to allow us to live in a hybrid world. Once adoption happens — and if the world around us isn’t as compelling anymore — it’ll expedite our willingness to go deeper and more virtual. AR feels safer currently because to live in a world that is 90% real and 10% fake is still doable. But as we warned in the boiling frog analogy above, that 10% will take up more and more real estate until the jump to VR or something like Elon Musk’s Neuralink will be the natural progression. At that time the hardware and experience will be so realistic, it’ll be indistinguishable from the real world.
The silver lining: The possibility of the metaverse as a force for good
“Instead of collective power we ended up with mass exploitation” –– Krystal Ball
If this past year has proven anything, there’s a hunger for more decentralized, user-driven platforms. If the metaverse can stay decentralized, it could be a true force for good that flips the current social media paradigm of the person as a product for data collection and targeting, instead of putting data solely in the hands of the user to monetize as they wish. If we let big tech be the on-ramp, they’ll be the big winners at our expense.
My suggestion is that we take this as seriously as the Manhattan Project. If history is any indicator of how slowly government moves — remember how long it took to mandate seatbelts in cars? — we don’t have the time to spend years trying to discover viability, this will be upon us in 3-5 years. To quote one of the Winklevoss twins in the movie The Social Network about how quickly early Facebook took off: “If I was a drug dealer, I couldn’t give free drugs to 650 people in one day.” The next decade’s drug, if we choose to take it, is a serious problem for humanity and a serious problem for the ethics of marketing.
The metaverse is here whether we like it or not, but we must use it responsibly. Congress is just now trying to figure out how to regulate social media; they are so woefully behind on this new landscape.
In the absence of regulation, we as marketers are going to have to stand in the gap and say: Knowing that the metaverse will probably be the wild west, it’s our choice whether we want this new frontier to just repeat history, or to become a brave new future. I hope we choose the latter.
Chris Carr is the President and Founder of Farotech