CAN WE BUILD A MORE EQUALLY DISTRIBUTED SOCIETY IN THE METAVERSE?
Challenges and opportunities for inclusive representation in the virtual realm. By Tsveti Enlow
Representation and Digital Identity
A 2021 survey by the Institute of Digital Fashion (IoDF) and Circular Fashion Summit ‘My Self, My Avatar, My Identity” points out that women, BIPOC, LGBTQ+ and people with disabilities are systematically underrepresented in the metaverse. In this global survey which includes over 6,000 participants, 60 percent feel that inclusivity is not taken seriously in the virtual world.
As we continue to build the metaverse, we need to decide – are we going to build a digital replica of the physical world with its inherent flaws OR are we going to construct a new realm beyond race, shape and binary restrictions?
The metaverse provides infinite options for self-expression through avatar customization. As the lines between the physical and digital continue to blur, we won’t be able to distinguish between our online and offline selves. This is particularly true for Gen Z with 35% who don’t make the distinction between the physical and virtual. The link between our physical and virtual self is the creation of the digital twin. Epic Games launched MetaHumans Creator, an app that can create life-like virtual humans for games and movies. Gucci and Dior also announced partnerships with avatar creation startups where customers can design their own avatars. To avoid stereotypes, “Galaxia” by The Diigitals has created digital models that don’t even resemble humans.
As we are designing new virtual societies, inclusive representation is key. Historically, black people have not been considered when new technologies have been developed. A very recent example is the systemic failure of AI to recognize the faces of black people. Exposing and tackling racial bias in tech is one of the goals of a UK initiative A Vibe Called Tech. Black people have also been discriminated against in the gaming industry through lack of proper hair representation. To tackle this issue, a group of digital artists are launching the first Open Source Afro Hair Library to normalize and celebrate black diversity and inclusion.
NFTs have also opened the door to disabled artists to be seen and profit from their art. Lachi, who is an award-winning blind musician, teamed up with disability artists Clara Woods, Elijah Osborne, Tiffany Antosz, and Rachel Gadsden amongst others, to launch a NFT collection to celebrate the International Day of Persons With Disabilities. To truly make the metaverse more accessible we need to build the infrastructure with disabled people in mind. Currently less than 2% of the Internet is meeting accessibility guidelines which leave many without access to product and services. New interactive technologies such as AR and haptic sensors have the potential to guide visually-impared persons not only in the digital but in the physical world.
While IRL (In Real Life) we are still bound to outdated gender norms and stereotypes – in the digital realm one will be able to freely explore and experiment with their gender identity. This is particularly true for Gen Z who see gender on a spectrum. According to a global study by Gucci and the Irregular Labs, nearly 25% of young people between the ages of 15 and 29 expect their gender identification to change at least once during their life. Already one of the most racially diverse generations, these identity nomads don’t want to be put in a box because they believe there is more than one way to represent yourself.
While the virtual world emerges as a blank canvas for self-exploration, it is important to build it so it includes everyone. The Digital Fashion (IoDF) and Circular Fashion Summit survey states that 70% of the respondents expressed that gender representation within virtual experiences was vital to them. To amplify the voices of queer, BIPOC and those with disabilities who are currently underrepresented in the metaverse, IoDF is launching a VR capsule collection featuring gender-fluid digital garments with which you can dress your avatar. IoDF has also merged forces with the digital agency DAZ 3D to create Catty 8.1, a non-binary digital twin of the IoDF’s creative director Cattytay, (she/they) hoping to ignite positive change towards inclusivity.
Avatars, NFTs and 3D art could also play an important role in combating gender dysphoria and trauma. The artist Marcel/a Baltarete has created a series of 3D digital animations to experiment with their gender identity in the digital realm where they could maintain a safe distance. “Digital re-embodiment allowed me to reimagine an alternative way of living, a post-human, trans-human future where I wouldn’t be limited by any physical or mental constraints,” they said in an interview with Dezeen. Their hope is that projects like this could prove to be therapeutic for other people and alleviate depression associated with gender dysphoria.
Women in the Meta
The main idea behind Web3 is the concept of decentralization and access.
Representation doesn’t only mean getting an inclusively designed avatar and providing safe spaces for digital experiences. Representation also means creating equal financial opportunities. The metaverse is a big business with a gender problem. “Only 16% of NFT artists are women, who have accounted for just 5% of NFT sales,” according to ArtTactic and twice as many men invest in cryptocurrency than women. Black women face even higher barriers.
The tides are changing and there is a new wave of female community-based organizations who aim to level the gender participation playfield.
One of these organizations is the newly launched BFF (Blockchain Friends Forever) for the crypto-curious and non-binary people. According to BFF, Web3 is projected to be a $10T industry by 2026 and women currently account for 19% of participation. With a goal to democratize crypto, BFF is an open-source community holding various educational events and discussions via discord. With founding members such as Mila Kunis, Cathy Hackl, Rebecca Minkoff amongst other distinguished women in tech, there is no doubt that BFF will sway the stats in favor of women.
Most recently, WiB partnered with she256 to form Komorebi Collective which will invest in female and non-binary crypto founders across the globe. The goal is to “get a group of really badass female founders, builders and investors in this space to come together and pool capital or knowledge and make a difference while earning returns,” the founders Manasi Vora and Medha Kothar told CNBC.
The metaverse promises great opportunities and advancements for brands and societies. As companies are racing to build and invest in the metaverse, it is crucial to design for inclusivity and representation from the get-go; otherwise, we risk creating a digital twin of the physical world with all its inherent flaws.
We are all architects of the metaverse and we all have a role to play in building a more equitable, diverse, inclusive and safe virtual society.
Tsveti Enlow is a leading Trends & Cultural Insights Consultant who partners with brands, trend, and creative agencies to deliver bespoke solutions. By exploring the intersection of consumer behaviour, culture, lifestyle, and design shifts, Tsveti identifies and translates emerging trends into new opportunities to help clients anticipate and plan for the future. As a part-time creative, part-time analyst, and full-time cultural anthropologist, Tsveti travels extensively to conduct in-market research as well as cover global events and trade shows in design, lifestyle, fashion and outdoor/active.
WORKING WITH TSVETI // CONTACT: Tsveti@sseams.co | Tsveti will be visiting ISPO, Munich, get in touch to discuss your requirements.
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