When you look at the below avatar, who do you see? In the metaverse, this is not an easy question to answer. But understanding the implications of both the question and the answer are critical to brand success in future.
Recently I was having brunch with a group of friends, and we started to discuss NFTs, web3, and the coming metaverses. (Yes, we’re a fun bunch!) An older, Black woman in the group said that as soon as the metaverse came for her, she would pick a white, young, male avatar because she knows it’s easier for white men to navigate the world today and she wanted to experience that for herself. Her proclamation was insightful. Beyond any social commentary, it clearly indicates she understands the next version of the internet is not being built by people like her. What does that mean for identity in the future?
Tech is still not a world for women and people of colour. Because most tech CEOs, developers, and investors are white and male, as web3 (the next phase of technology development) is rolling out, we are seeing a very homogenous view of that world. The terms ‘crypto bro’ and ‘NFT bro’ exist for a reason – the majority of NFT owners, for example, are male. And if this is the case – that the next iteration of the web is being built by the same people who built the current version – what happens when we work and interact in virtual, 3D environments or create avatars to represent us?
In the 1990s, when I was online chatting or posting on bulletin boards, I didn’t always present myself as a woman. Women know that when we are seen or perceived as female, we are more likely to get unwelcome advances, be harassed, or to have our input and ideas discredited. Years later, in the web2 era of social media platforms, that problem had not changed. We know that women (or usernames perceived as female) are still harassed, stalked, or trolled off these platforms with greater frequency than men or masculine-perceived users.
Today, at the advent of web3, metrics indicate that white, male avatars are predominantly being purchased by users. Female avatars or those of darker skin colour are not only fewer to find, but are also perceived as less valuable in economic terms. Is the metaverse replicating the same problems we see on the internet (or even in our society)? It is encouraging to see that users are asking for more diverse representation; although still small, avatars with more skin variations, more LBTQIA+ options, and more underrepresented options are becoming available.
As we hurdle into the next version of the web, and can pick what we look like to others, will we pick avatars that reflect our current, physical identity? Or will we pick what we aspire to be, or how we want to present ourselves to society? Or like my brunch-mate, will we pick an identity to hide our true features and escape harassment, prejudice, or discreditation? Will we have three avatars: one for work, one for our personal life, and one for the general public, each hiding or reflecting the different ways we want to interact? What does that multi-avatar, dynamic environment mean to the way society perceives the notion of ‘identity’? And critically for brands, what does this fluid concept of identity mean for advertisements and marketing?
Traditionally, brand advertising has targeted particular demographics: men, women, young adults, senior citizens, white, black, etc. These demographics were easy to see because people in the pre-internet world typically weren’t given options for how they present themselves. Now in the 2020s at the advent of the web3 world, this is no longer the case. Personal pronouns are fluid, and avatars can reflect a user's perceived sense of self or the identity they’ve assumed for that moment. For brands, will it matter that a male avatar is a woman who is interested in dressing him in grey slacks and a polo shirt? Do brands have to start thinking about who may actually be behind the avatar? (Because it may not be the demographic that’s on the screen.) Do men who select a female avatar make purchasing decisions differently than women with male avatars? And what about someone like me, who will someday have a cat as an avatar, how will brands address consumers who do not even present themselves as human?
Many brands today are struggling with diversity, equity, and inclusion, and how to present themselves and their products to consumers within that rubric. These struggles will only amplify in the metaverse. Brands need to quickly examine how they have approached these issues on their social media platforms and in their digital work and assess whether they’ve been successful. This analysis will help brands develop a strategy to navigate the fluid waters of customer identity in the metaverse.
Veronica Millan is global chief information officer at MullenLowe Group