Are brands ready to face the dangers lurking in the depths of the metaverse?

While Bezos and Musk scour the stars for humanity’s next home, rival billionaire Mark Zuckerberg’s land grab aims into cyberspace and the fabled metaverse. Brands are now prospecting the digital depths with the hope of establishing immersive colonies for the next generation of web users. Those without the brand safety provisions and know-how will perish on the journey, while the rest will live long and prosper.

Marketers are obsessed with the metaverse, having been titillated by the potential of immersive digital spaces during the pandemic. Plans are being formed – meanwhile, we still reel from the worst elements of web2, be it the spread of hate and misinformation, the commodification of personal data and our entrapment in echo chambers. The marketers may as well be fleeing a dying planet.

The question is, will the metaverse be the utopia the futurists claim, or will we be longing for the inept moderation and wishy-washy policies of the tech giants when we land in our decentralized worlds? The Drum investigates.

What the hell is the metaverse?

Throughout The Drum’s Metaverse Deep Dive, you’ll have seen many different descriptions of ‘the metaverse’. Hordes of stakeholders project their most profitable vision into the public consciousness. Like looking at a distant star through a powerful telescope, they’re sure it’ll sustain life. But what sort of life?

Sam Huber, founder of Admix, says gaming is a stepping stone to a full decentralized metaverse – an online space where people gather and construct an online identity. He says: “The metaverse is a digital universe or planet. At the moment, it’s basically empty land. But brands need to enter the metaverse early, jumping in now to create their own experiences before they can advertise in other experiences."

The gold rush is underway before the gold (users) are even in them thar hills.

Richard Robinson, managing director of Xeim Engage, evokes the garden of Eden. “Imagine launching Coca-Cola in the garden when you only have two customers, no fridges and glasses haven’t been invented yet.”

He forgot to mention the snake, the devil’s temptation that will follow humans into the metaverse. Robinson adds: “Real world rules don’t operate in a place where the ASA and Metropolitan Police have no jurisdiction; and for risk-averse brand managers the metaverse is your worst nightmare – if you can think it, it will happen.”

What brands can do

Andrew Douthwaite, vice-president of metaverse at Dubit, believes brands have three ways to come to market in metaverse spaces; creating immersive branded content experiences, buying virtual real estate and partnering with existing user-generated content (UGC) experiences.

Currently, these experiences exist within platforms such as Sandbox, Roblox, Decentraland and Fortnite. It’s the role of these corporations to ensure ‘digital civility’ and safety for users. For example, UGC gaming platform Roblox has a dedicated ‘vice-president of civility.’ Meanwhile, Roblox boasts thousands of human moderators on top of its artificial intelligence (AI) to filter and restrict bad actors. Neighborhood watch or embattled minutemen? You decide.

Roblox, for example, has had its share of IP issues, particularly in the unofficial levels and experiences players build as ‘fan art.’ Douthwaite adds: “Persistent open worlds and UGC platforms empower content creators with endless opportunities to imagine and create. It’s wise for brands to be across all emergent platforms and have a core understanding of the zeitgeist, and the opportunities and benefits they offer.”

But if these spaces become too restrictive, people will “move with their feet” to somewhere where the sheriff is a bit more lenient. “While the companies, organizations and the creators of these metaverse ‘worlds’ will control their own spaces, substantial power will rest with whoever controls the algorithms by which those worlds are connected.”

The safety question

Rachel Clarke, founding partner at Strat House, worries that “safety measures are not the first thing considered by your typical ‘tech bro.’”

“User safety and privacy concerns are no different on the metaverse than on other platforms, but if you jump in now, you’re likely to have more problems just because the space is so new.”

Meanwhile, Stevan Randjelovic, director of brand safety and digital risk, EMEA at GroupM, is enthused by the questions. He’s been putting serious thought into how to most safely land brands in the metaverse and ensure the colonies survive.

He says: “This isn’t pie in the sky – we have to think about it now so we don’t have to deal with ramifications later. What can happen when people get together offline is the same thing that can happen when they get together online – the only aggravating condition is that in the online environment people can simply log out and reduce the burden on their conscious.”

In the decentalized world he sees a lack of control, and he’s unsure how we’ll address undesirable, illegal and hurtful behavior. He explains: “Imagine a situation in which a virtual person leads another person to commit suicide in real life. That is why we need to have a social contract applicable to the metaverse before it launches.”

Brand spaces meanwhile, be it games, shops or social spaces, can be vandalized, occupied and altered by the digitally-savvy. How do the raft of boycotts and product burnings of our politically polarized world become realized in the metaverse?

He urges marketers to enter the metaverse as they would online livestreaming today. “It is unpredictable, anything can happen and there is rarely a preemptive measure to be taken.”

But first and foremost, the metaverse needs its audience. And that means that human safety comes before brand safety, be it policing body image, verbal or ‘virtual/physical’ violence in the online space, identity theft and algorithmic bias.

Michael Baggs, strategy director at the Social Element, offers a worrying example: “Imagine discovering a virtual store has become a key meeting spot for a fascist group. Also people already crucify brands that make them cringe, or worse, on social media. It’ll be worse when the space is so inherently up close and personal.”

These risks aside, he sees a bigger risk in ceding the territories to the chaos. “Roblox users built hundreds of McDonald’s restaurants in the game, without input from the brand. Better to be in charge of the brand image than be dragged in, kicking and screaming.”

Meanwhile, Nick Blenkarne, creative strategy director, Imagination, worries about the anonymity and distance the metaverse will afford users. “Whether it’s road rage behind the wheel of a car, or savagely trolling on social media, when a physical or digital barrier exists between people in a way that obscures their identity, the worst of human behaviors tend to come out.”

Already there’s been reports of sexual harassment in the early tests of Meta’s Horizon Worlds. “We’re proven to exhibit our worst acts of aggression/creepiness/abusiveness/narrow-mindedness (delete as appropriate), in ways we wouldn’t consider doing face-to-face.”

We need to be ready for them this time.

Getting ready

In January 2022, a thinktank of minds from Dentsu, Kuaishou, Riot Games and Roblox set some digital safety standards in the metaverse. The Oasis Consortium released a framework of 5Ps: priority, people, partnership, product and process.

Tiffany Xingyu Wang, president of the Oasis Consortium, admits that the metaverse offers “incredible promise and incredible danger ... imagine the threat of something like 4chan and 8chan in an immersive, interoperable, persistent and fantasized universe.”

She continues: “Immersiveness amplifies the impact of toxicity, persistence hastens time to toxicity, fantasy increases exposure and possibility and interoperability makes moderation of content hard. Without safety guardrails, users will not come or will not stay in the metaverse. Safety is key to the survival and success of the metaverse.”

Xingyu Wang is very bullish on the potential of the metaverse but remains open-eyed about the safety standards needed. She explains: “40% of US internet users have reported being subjected to harassment or hate speech; every 39 seconds there is a data breach; and machines recognize white-skinned males 34% better than dark-skinned females. We lost trust in the social web, where our safety is threatened, privacy is breached and machines discriminate against humans. This is because we didn’t have a clear set of standards for today’s iteration of the web.”

Oasis lays out its plan here to avoid these pitfalls. She adds: “Some of the advisory board worked on the early incarnation of the social web and lived the mistakes and prices to pay for not having safety guardrails. Others currently lead safety by design practices for emerging platforms.”

Angela E Johnson, chief client officer at Dentsu, is also lending her weight behind the Oasis Consortium, another sign the marketing world is taking these issues seriously – and believes they are worth solving.

She says: “The key thing is to purposefully plan to protect people in web3. The internet in its web2 format evolved and grew without us having a good enough view of where it may head, so it formed with gaps and places where people could inadvertently get hurt. With web3 we have the chance to do better. We can knowingly go into creating spaces and places in the metaverse that from the beginning build in equity and safety for both brand and consumers.”

For more on the exciting, new opportunities for marketers in this rapidly evolving space, check out The Drum’s Metaverse hub.