It seems like only a few months ago that the tech buzzword du jour was NFTs. Fast forward to March 2022, and it is impossible to go online without hearing (or reading) about the phenomenon that is Web3 and the metaverse. In this article, we explore these related concepts before going on to consider the opportunities and challenges they present, particularly in the context of creating a more diverse and equal world.
Web3 and the metaverse
In true internet fashion, the concept of Web3 was launched into the mainstream by way of a Twitter thread posted by tech investor Chris Dixon, who described it as the distinct new era of the internet: first, there was Web1, the basic "read-only" web of the late 80s and 90s which was not user-interactive in any meaningful sense. The advent of social media heralded the arrival of Web2 –a participative social web driven by user-generated content and predicated on a system of centralised control over online experience (aka Big Tech). In recent years, the emergence of blockchain technology brought us to Web3, the nebulously defined "Next Phase" of the Internet.
Although still in its infancy, Web3 represents a community-driven, decentralised version of the Internet. It embodies a new paradigm in web interaction that is predicated on the distributed consensus made possible by blockchain technology and the ability to reach binding agreements with complete strangers, without the centralisation of power and informational control in the hands of a few wealthy "tech bro" elites. The central themes of Web3 can be summed up in two words: ownership – of our personal data and the content we create – and co-operation – between users and websites spontaneously transacting within a pluralistic digital civilisation.
An associated, equally amorphous concept to Web3 is the metaverse, currently in its fledgling phase but not yet a concrete reality. The metaverse derives its name from the 2002 sci-fi novel Snow Crash and alludes to a 3D immersive world (not unlike the Oasis in Ready Player One) which combines virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), mixed reality (MR), gaming, cryptocurrencies, social media…the list goes on. It is essentially a catch-all term for virtual worlds in which users can interact with each other using virtual avatars and engage with apps and services in a far more immersive way. Contrary to what the name suggests, there is no single definitive iteration of the metaverse. There are already several platforms offering access to persistent virtual worlds in which players can gather and socialise, such as Roblox, Decentraland, Horizon etc.
Big Tech's big problem
Whilst these early forays into the metaverse provide a glimpse into its potential, it also highlights the potential pitfalls. After all, an immersive virtual simulation of our existing reality is sure to replicate many of the challenges we already face in our physical and digital worlds. Already there have been numerous reported instances by female users of digitally-enacted sexual harassment. In the context of VR-driven metaverse simulations, women have been subject to intimidation, harassment, rape threats – digital experiences made realistic by innovations in VR and its immersive nature.
By all accounts, this is a known problem in the industry and yet, disappointingly, the response by many platform owners to date has been to introduce safety features that largely put the onus on women to protect themselves. Meta's Horizon Worlds is a prime example of this: faced with user reports of online abuse, a company representative pointed out that a complainant had failed to use the tools available to her to block, mute and report offenders, reminiscent of the early days of social media where female targets of cyber bullying were simply told to log off. Following backlash, Meta subsequently introduced a “personal boundary” setting meant to "help set behavioural norms" by imposing a minimum one metre distance between avatars. Regulation, such as the UK's Online Safety Bill, may help to combat some of the issues and give rise to what the Government hopes to be "the safest place in the world to be online". As our Partner Emma Woollcott has said, the Bill "has the potential to revolutionise how we interact online", assuming it is passed. However, until this becomes a reality, potential targets of online harm are left to fend for themselves with the (in many cases, inadequate) safety features provided by such platforms.
This is emblematic of Big Tech's big problem – the fact that these spaces are created, directed and marketed by men, for men. New platforms are being developed and launched without proper consideration for the welfare of potential targets of abuse (sexual or otherwise), an occurrence attributable at least in part to the acknowledged lack of diversity in Big Tech. The users of new technologies – created by companies with predominantly white male CEOs – are assumed to be white and male by default.
All of this begs the question: if the same types of companies and people who ran Web 2.0 are at the helm of Web3, how much can things really change? The answer (unsurprisingly) is not much. By definition, Web3 represents an inspiring vision for a more equalised iteration of the internet, so why build it the same way as we did Web2, with internalised hierarchies of exclusion?
Getting women into Web3
Like the early days of Wall Street or the tech boom, there is a huge opportunity right now within Web3 for women to get involved and shape its future, free and open to whoever is willing to develop it.
There are already notable initiatives to promote female and other minority participation in Web3, such as Unstoppable Domains' Unstoppable Women of Web3 initiative, which launched on International Women's Day 2022 – a diversity and education group focusing on training the next generation of talent, with a mission to equalise the playing field early in the Web3 era. Similarly, BFF, a self-proclaimed "community for the crypto curious", is on a mission to help women and non-binary people get educated, connected and financially rewarded in all things crypto and Web3. Within the NFT space, two of the most prominent Ethereum NFT projects – The Sandbox and World of Women – have teamed up to launch the WoW Foundation, an initiative to bring more women into NFTs and the burgeoning metaverse via education and mentorship.
The community-based nature of the metaverse and associated developments including crypto and NFTs may grant women a certain edge over men. Projects like the ones mentioned above create even more opportunities for women and other marginalised groups to make an impact on the space while it is still being developed. Moreover, as discussed in a previous article, it is promising that more women are in a position to decide which companies and projects get funded.
Ultimately, the next phase of the internet could be more welcoming, safe, and fair—if women play a bigger role in creating it.