Racism Could Ruin the Metaverse: Tech Needs to Improve Diversity

It's possible that the tech industry's poor record on diversity will have major ramifications when the metaverse emerges.

On social media platforms developed by primarily white and male tech CEOs, tens of millions of people of color have experienced harassment and hate speech for years. Many people have also had their contributions ignored or repurposed without their permission.

This type of online harassment could become much more visceral and devastating in the metaverse, which is a concept championed by the same predominantly white and male tech CEOs.

Jeff Nelson, co-founder and chief technology officer of Blavity, an online media company oriented toward Black millennial artists, argues that when people who have historically endured injustices or abuses aren't present at the table, “you don't build platforms in a way that protects those people.”

People who desire to inflict harm on others can utilize the platforms your design to do so at a large scale.”

For more than a decade, the tech industry has been publicly confronting its lack of diversity. There are still just 7 percent and 8 percent of computer worker responsibilities held by African American and Hispanic workers in the United States, according to Pew Research Center data.

It'll be difficult to avoid the same problems experienced by today's social media users, Nelson adds, if the companies constructing the metaverse lack diverse voices, according to a CNBC Make It analysis of Pew data.

There is a danger of repeating the mistakes we made with social networking and web 2.0, Nelson warns. “We just transfer that problem into this new arena if we make the same mistakes.” “Therefore, it is definitely a concern.”

Already, Those Who Use Virtual Worlds Face Racial Discrimination and Abuse

Not a great start to the metaverse. Several studies of virtual world gaming platforms have shown that minors are regularly exposed to racist and violent rhetoric and harassment in virtual worlds.

It's very uncommon for psychologists to state that these kinds of encounters can be a full-on assault on a user's mental health.

Racism could ruin the metaverse

When it comes to racism on social media, Nelson sees it as a sign that metaverse platforms aren't ready to handle the hatred its users can dish out to one another.

With Blavity, he's seeking to compel change. His company hosts an annual conference called AfroTech, which “brings mass awareness about Black individuals in technology and entrepreneurship and professional growth,” Nelson says.

When Covid struck, AfroTech went virtual, creating the “first-ever Black metaverse,” as Nelson describes it.

He goes on to say that it's not just about branding, but the more Black people make their mark on the metaverse now, the more aware future platform developers will be of the need to create more inviting virtual environments.

To ensure that “Black people are equitably represented in this future,” Nelson argues, “building worlds within the metaverse, generating the content, creating art” are all crucial initiatives.

How Companies Like Meta Are Dealing With the Situation

At the very least, it appears that some of the world's largest tech companies are paying attention.

Since Mark Zuckerberg became CEO of Meta, “metaverse” has become the most talked-about term in the tech industry. Instagram and Facebook have taken steps in the past year to better assist and promote black content creators on Meta-owned platforms because of his company's history of stifling the accounts and content of black creators.

It's been announced that Facebook will spend $1 billion annually with “diverse suppliers,” including $100 million for Black-owned businesses. Meta, on the other hand, insists that in creating its own metaverse, it is mindful of variety.

We have the potential to help construct the metaverse with diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) from its origin since firms like Meta are starting to think about it now, writes Maxine Williams, Meta's chief diversity officer, in a blog post.

Racism could ruin the metaverse

Roblox, an online game startup that is investing heavily in the metaverse, frequently publicizes its colorists. At least, that's what Roblox Vice President of Engineering, Julian Walshaw-Vaughan, who won a Blacks in Gaming award last year, says.

Our goal is to make it possible for anyone in the world to learn important skills as developers and engineers, along with an opportunity to express themselves creatively and easily publish content, and this will have an impact on the technology industry as a whole and result in more diverse and representative shared experiences,” he says.

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Positive signals for a more diverse metaverse future can be seen in statements like these. Seeing and believing are Nelson's only options.

As he puts it, “Frankly, I haven't seen enough.”

“A Fantastic Opportunity to Do Better” Could Be Found in the Metaverse

Nelson argues that the simplest way for IT companies to make a difference is by hiring new employees.

If you're looking for diversity in the workplace, you're more likely to find it at a company that hires a lot of people from Stanford or the Ivy League. According to her LinkedIn profile, Meta Williams went to Yale University.

In Nelson's view, that's just “giving lip service” to diversity. No one is being hired to change the culture of a company. As a result, they're hiring people who will fit into their preconceptions of how they should function.”

Racism could ruin the metaverse

As firms like Meta, Apple, Roblox, and Microsoft work to construct the next generation of the web, this type of shift may be necessary rapidly, even if the metaverse itself takes years, if not decades, to become a mainstream reality.

Nelson believes that the metaverse has a great chance for improvement. The fact that we're having these conversations rather than five years from now when we'll be saying, ‘The metaverse isn't inviting,' gives me confidence. ‘What can we do to make this better?'”

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