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Enabling Representation and Self-Expression in the Metaverse

AI & Emerging Technology Consulting AI & Emerging Technology Consulting, Accessibility, DE&I, Experience, Metaverse 6 min read
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As we continue to give shape to the metaverse, we become increasingly aware of our responsibility to help foster a digital environment that is truly inclusive and accessible—one that gives everyone the chance to create and participate. Accessibility in the metaverse means providing an equitable playing field so everyone can participate in and profit from the key economic driver it is projected to be, and businesses can play an important role in upskilling and providing such access.

In addition to making digital spaces like the metaverse accessible to audiences far and wide, it’s crucial that brands offer consumers a wide variety of representational features to facilitate self-expression and secure a sense of belonging. Online you can be whoever you want—the beauty of the internet is that it has long enabled people to self-present on their own terms, but it is up to the creators behind the scenes to provide consumers with the tools to do so. 

Why are representation and self-expression in the metaverse important?

To younger generations, real-life and digital identities are equally important. The first generation that grew up with digital avatars has now come of age, and digital experiences are pivotal to shaping their identity, our virtualization report highlights. In fact, 60% of Gen Z and 62% of Gen Y “believe that how you present yourself online is more important than how you present yourself IRL.”   

Digital platforms are important spaces for identity construction, and virtual-first brands can satisfy an audience’s desire to build identity by providing accessible, personalized experiences that enable self-expression. Movements like #BlackLivesMatter and #SayHerName, which have a standing both online and offline, are driven by identity and fuel the growth of social groups connected by shared beliefs, interests or experiences. Virtual-first brands that actively engage with such new, hybrid identities are able to foster a sense of belonging for diverse audiences.  

Beyond the element of fun, the metaverse can serve as a tool for empathy. Brands play an important part in determining the metaverse’s impact on consumers. The Ancient Greek philosopher Plato once said, “you learn more about a person in an hour of play than in a lifetime of conversation.” While we’re well into the 21st century, this statement is as valid today as it was back then. 

“The metaverse gives us a shared sense of space that you don't get through 2D experiences,” says Catherine D. Henry, SVP Growth, Metaverse & Innovation Strategy. “This medium enables intellectual and emotional connections that transcend our physical bodies, allowing us to experience (once again) the purity of relationships formed as children—when people connect over interests and shared play, rather than commonalities and socially imposed signifiers. This is truly liberating, and the reason why fantastical avatars and gender fluidity in the metaverse are so important.”

Through play, people can engage with others in a fun and meaningful way and learn to get along with their peers, as seeing others from a different point of view allows people to practice empathy, our Social Innovation Lab argues. Research shows that the embodied experience of inhabiting an avatar that is physically different from oneself can lead to behavioral changes that align with that avatar and influence someone’s self-perception, suggesting one can start to see overlap between the avatar and the self. “This is important because empathy and tolerance can be fostered in virtual environments, and help bridge the social divide created by Web2,” says Henry. “The missed opportunity for brands is not so much to have games, but now it’s more about amplifying authentic, often underrepresented voices and creating space for people to learn.” So, rather than an escape from real-world problems, virtual-first brands view digital as a tool to help solve them.

Besides all the perks, digital spaces also come with problems—that’s no secret. One thing to watch out for is (unconscious) biases of creators that limit representation and self-expression, such as customization options based on stereotypes and cultural appropriation, or exclusion of customization features that people want to use, like Black hairstyles. Even more worrisome is the issue that user behavior can go against expectations. Think of how some social media platforms are used as a tool to manipulate through fake news, or how online groups are weaponized to harbor hate groups—when they could serve as a refuge for those looking for belonging. However, the metaverse is a new digital chapter and thus presents new opportunities to do better. 

So, how do we achieve representation and self-expression in the metaverse? 

Diversify avatar use and customization. Given that in the US 48% of Gen Z consider themselves non-white and one-third of Gen Z identify outside the gender binary, providing a wide variety of representational features to facilitate self-expression and belonging is essential. This means offering a range of skin tones, choice of prosthetics, hairstyles, body shapes, voices, and so on. Another important step brands can take is to keep default avatars free or cheap, and only charge (more) money for additional differentiators, like a cool jacket. That said, features for self-presentation can go beyond physical characteristics to represent a more emotive sense of self-identity as well. Adidas, for instance, partnered with Ready Player Me to create unique avatars that are based on a person’s personality rather than their physical likeness, ensuring an authentic reflection of who they are. Above all, don’t force people to show up as themselves, but allow them to choose whatever they want their avatar to (re)present in the metaverse. 

As a brand, give user-makers the tools and get out of the way. It’s crucial not to constrain user-makers, since they’re the ones forging the future of how we use the metaverse—keeping in mind that we encourage brands to be transparent about how they monitor their users’ contributions to ensure the metaverse remains a safe space for everyone. That aside, brands can invest in education and work with influencers to market the tools they offer to DIY. Duolingo is a great example of a brand that has built assets for its users to create their own games, but then got out of the way. This circles back to the point of accessibility; we need to make sure as many creators from different walks of life as possible are included in the building process to counter biases.

Monk Thoughts The more creators there are, the more diversity you’re going to see.
Catherine Henry headshot

Allow ways to gather and group for belonging. Digital environments offer a safe space for exploring identities—and to ensure safety, brands need to establish ethics and guidelines from the get-go. Online you can be whoever you want, so people tend to feel more confident to speak up. Fortunately, many people are able to bring something from that experience back to their real lives. For instance, people from the LBGTQ+ community were able to form community support systems within social VR—and for some, this offered the only form of support as they weren’t able to access any offline. This combination of a supportive community and the embodied avatar experience empowers many in the real world and helps them understand their identities better.  

In all, the whole engine behind the metaverse world must be diversified. From executives and employees who work at the companies making the metaverse, to decision-makers at brands creating experiences in the metaverse, owners of digital environments, and influencers and user-makers—the metaverse is for everyone, so everyone should be able to contribute a building block. The issue is, many people don’t know how.

Monk Thoughts To facilitate this, companies can provide free training to the public on creating in this digital space, which will ultimately help bridge social, economic and developmental gaps.
James Nicholas Kinney headshot

In the same vein, looking at the expected influence and impact of the metaverse, brands can integrate metaverse strategies into their ESG commitments—the possibilities to diversify are endless. 

How does this all come back to the real world?

Digital behavior inspires real-world change, that’s a fact. Conversations that take place in the metaverse expand out into other spaces, such as meet-ups, talk shows and other real-life events. In a digital environment like the metaverse, we’re able to meet people from around the world that we would’ve otherwise never met and actually get to know them on a deeper level. Some may just see avatars, but we see people who are willing to be their authentic selves in connecting with others. 

“People are more willing to be open, vulnerable and their real selves when, ironically, they're not actually in person and when they’re behind an avatar, so people have more ‘real’ experiences connecting with somebody that in real life they wouldn’t have ended up talking to,” says Susan Parker, Executive Creative Director. “And then they might take it outside the metaverse.”

Insights for this piece were contributed by Catherine D. Henry, SVP Growth, Metaverse & Innovation Strategy; James Nicholas Kinney, Chief of Diversity and Talent Discovery; Sam Haskin, Inclusive Marketing Practice Lead; Susan Parker, Executive Creative Director; and Vanessa Zucker, Director of Marketing and Communications


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The website has been translated to English with the help of Humans and AI