Racism Could Ruin the Metaverse If Technology Doesn’t Improve Diversity Now

The tech industry’s disappointing track record on diversity issues could have serious consequences when the metaverse appears.

For years, tens of millions of people of color have had unwanted experiences on social media platforms primarily built by white and male tech CEOs, including harassment and hate speech. Many users have also had their contributions regularly ignored or copied without attribution.

If these problems follow users into the metaverse, a concept championed largely by the same mostly white and male tech CEOs, today’s online abuse could become significantly more visceral and harmful.

“When you don’t have people at the table who have historically been harmed or abused, or who have to live with certain things on their minds, then you don’t build platforms in a way that protects those people.” says Jeff Nelson, co-founder and chief technology officer of Blavity, an online media company aimed at creators of black millennials. “You build platforms that can be used by people who want to harm others, [and can] do it at scale.”

The tech industry has spent a decade publicly acknowledging its diversity problem. Still, black and Hispanic workers occupy only 7% and 8% of computer worker roles in the U.S., although they make up 11% and 17% of the country’s total workforce, respectively, according to the Pew Research Center.

If the companies building the metaverse lack diverse voices, says Nelson, it will be hard to avoid the same problems faced by today’s social media users — including more than 80 million black Americans, according to a CNBC Make It analysis of Pew. Dice.

“If we make the same mistakes we made with social media and web 2.0… then we’re going to bring that problem into this new space,” says Nelson. “So it’s absolutely a problem.”

Users of virtual worlds already encounter harassment, intolerance

The metaverse didn’t start well. Studies of virtual world gaming platforms such as VRChat have found evidence of minors being regularly exposed to racist, violent language and harassment in virtual worlds. These types of experiences can be outright attacks on users’ mental health, psychologists say.

For Nelson, it’s an extension of the existing problems people of color have faced for years on social media — and a sign that the metaverse’s platforms aren’t ready for the kinds of abuse their users can hurl at one another.

He’s trying to force change with Blavity. Every year, his company holds a conference called AfroTech, which helps “bring mass awareness of black people in technology, entrepreneurship and professional development,” says Nelson.

When Covid arrived, AfroTech went virtual – resulting in what Nelson calls the “first black metaverse”. This is more than just branding, he adds: The more people of color branding the metaverse today, the more the developers building these future platforms will know they need to intentionally create more welcoming virtual spaces.

“Creating worlds within the metaverse, creating content, creating art, all these things are efforts that are important to us as we think about the metaverse and make sure that black people are fairly represented in this future,” says Nelson.

How tech giants like Meta are responding

There is evidence that some tech giants are listening – or at least saying they are.

Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg almost single-handedly turned the “metaverse” into the hottest concept in the tech world last year. His company has also faced criticism for suppressing the accounts and content of black creators in the past, prompting Instagram and Facebook to take steps last year to better support and promote black creators on Meta-owned platforms.

Facebook has committed to spending $1 billion a year on “diverse vendors,” including $100 million annually on black-owned businesses. And Meta says it’s keeping diversity in mind as it builds its own version of the metaverse.

“As companies like Meta are starting to think about that future now, we have the opportunity to help build the metaverse with diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) from the ground up,” Maxine Williams, Meta’s director of diversity, wrote in a blog post. . post in February.

As companies like Meta are starting to think about that future now, we have the opportunity to help build the diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) metaverse from the ground up.

Maxine Williams

Diversity Director, Meta

Online gaming company Roblox, another company that gambles high on the metaverse, regularly promotes its color creators. According to Julian Walshaw-Vaughan, vice president of engineering at Roblox and last year’s Blacks in Gaming award winner, the company’s business model depends on it.

“Our hope is, if we can provide a platform for anyone in the world to learn important skills as developers and engineers, along with the opportunity to express themselves creatively and publish content with ease, that will have an impact on the tech industry at large and will result in more diverse and representative shared experiences”, he says.

These kinds of statements are positive signs for a more inclusive metaverse future. But for Nelson, seeing is believing.

“Frankly, I haven’t seen enough,” he says.

The metaverse could be ‘a perfect opportunity to do better’

Nelson says the easiest way for tech companies to start making a difference is obvious: hire.

These days, he says, tech companies often increase diversity in their workplaces by hiring people of color from the same places they get most of their employees: Stanford or the Ivy Leagues. Meta’s Williams, for example, attended Yale University, according to his LinkedIn profile.

“[That’s] lip service to diversity,” says Nelson. “Companies are not bringing in people who challenge the culture. They are bringing in people who will assimilate or fit into their preconceived notion of how they should operate.”

This kind of shift may need to happen quickly as companies like Meta, Apple, Roblox and Microsoft move forward to build the next iteration of the web – even if the metaverse itself could take years, if not decades, to become a mainstream reality.

“The metaverse is a perfect opportunity to do better,” says Nelson. “I’m confident because it’s too early and we’re having these conversations [now] — instead of having this conversation five years from now, and it’s about ‘The metaverse is not welcoming. How can we fix this?'”

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