Tech enthusiasts and investors looking for the next hottest thing will likely spend much of 2022 gushing over the metaverse.
In its simplest form, the metaverse is an online world similar to Second Life or The Sims where anyone can log on, create an avatar and walk around performing everyday tasks. It’s being marketed as a space where cryptocurrency will reign supreme and everyone is welcome to live and prosper — including Black entrepreneurs.
“I think the metaverse has an opportunity to be a reflection of what we want it to be, whether that’s geographic diversity, or diversity on a number of other fronts that we traditionally discuss in this country,” Stanley Pierre-Louis, the CEO of Entertainment Software Association, told VentureBeat last year.
The U.S. has long been a place where Black and Hispanic Americans have suffered from systemic racism in the realms of housing, education, home ownership and health. The metaverse will be different, tech evangelists have said, and it won’t suffer from the same racial inequities that have plagued U.S. history.
Metaverse money to be made
That promise has pushed some companies including Nike and Atari to start selling products specifically for the digital world. And since everyone is open to the metaverse, Black people can and should feel free to invest there as well, they said.
So far, most people have been making money off the metaverse by selling non-fungible tokens (or NFTs) and by flipping metaverse real estate and earning cryptocurrency off the sell. Artists, for example, have sold their work for millions of dollars on NFT marketplaces such as OpenSea. But there could be different and newer ways to make money once more major companies make their presence in the metaverse.
Joining the metaverse is easy. Anyone can start an account on the existing popular metaverses Upland or Decentraland. Once joined, the platform will ask you to create an avatar — a virtual version of yourself that will travel across the digital world.
The tech equipment you need to join the metaverse include a smart phone, computer, gaming console, Virtual Reality (VR) headset, Augmented Reality (AR) glasses.
Atari CEO Fred Chesnais told Forbes last March that the metaverse is in its infancy and people from all backgrounds will start piling in soon.
“People have been drawn to digital interactive experiences ever since Atari gave birth to the industry with Pong,” Chesnais said. “This coupled with NFTs, which allow for users to truly own their in-game assets while empowering creators, is driving even more interest. And this trend will continue to go up. We’re only in the first few innings.”
The Facebook problem
Aside from Atari, one of the organizations leading the charge into the metaverse is Meta — the company that owns Facebook.
Facebook becoming a leader in the metaverse could be problematic because the company has a history of racist tendencies, said Breigha Adeyemo, a race, technology and democracy researcher at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
In an opinion piece for The Conversation, Adeyemo noted how Facebook at one point allowed advertisers to exclude people of color from the ads they place on the social networking site.
“Worse, Facebook has frequently removed Black women’s comments that speak out against racism and sexism,” Adeyemo said. “Ironically, Black women’s comments about racism and sexism are being censored – colloquially known as getting zucked – for ostensibly violating Facebook’s policies against hate speech.”
Facebook has since discontinued those practices, but Adeyemo argued that the metaverse has the potential to be just as discriminatory as tech giants have been for years. She said it will take a few more years of the metaverse becoming more popular to truly see if it’s an equitable space for white and Black entrepreneurs alike.
“As it stands, the benefits of the metaverse do not outweigh its costs for me,” Adeyemo wrote. “But it does not have to stay that way.”