The internet is ruined. The Metaverse can still be saved
The future of The metaverse looks shakier than anyone can imagine. Tech companies that have wholeheartedly embraced the concept — like Facebook, which went meta, and Disney– face the reality of developing a concept that supposedly already exists but hasn’t gained real popularity. Even members of the video game industry, who have been exploring the field for years through virtual worlds like Second Life, to doubt that it will ever deliver what it promises. But there’s also potential in this early stage: if the metaverse really takes off, the people building it now could avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.
As it stands, the metaverse is “not yet determined,” it says Micaela Mantegna, a partner at the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard. Because of this, it might still be possible to stem the rampant toxicity that has infiltrated the internet and social media. The Metaverse is still connected to its more organic roots, and if those who populate it – be they humans or businesses – can remember the lessons they’ve learned about online safety and moderation, the Metaverse might be a little less be terrible place. Put another way, “We’ve already ruined one internet,” Mantegna said during a recent panel discussion at the Game Developer Conference, but there’s hope for the next one.
Early Metaverse experiences like Linden Lab’s Second Lifeallow users to explore identities and build new worlds. These ideas became the backbone for platforms like Roblox and VRChat, turning devices into hubs for social interaction community building. More recently, as companies like Meta moved to transform virtual spaces like Horizon Worlds into megaplatforms, these smaller communities felt sidelined. The user is less obliged to create their own world. Instead, they navigate the clunky, future without legs companies present to them.
Harassment and other problems have inevitably crept into these spaces. Technology is misused, says Mantegna, and it’s important to think early about how it might be misused. There is currently a huge lack of transparency as to how the metaverse will work. Any system that uses algorithms, for example, is prone to bias, whether it affects economically disadvantaged users, people of color, marginalized communities or others. It’s also unclear what actual ecological impact the metaverse will have. And then there are the thorny issues of surveillance and privacy. “How do we make sure we’re not being manipulated in these areas?” Mantegna says.
Some of these issues could be addressed with strong — and enforceable — laws and ethical guidelines. Regulation probably shouldn’t be left to the companies behind the Metaverse effort. But as other platforms have shown, laws can’t keep up with the speed of the internet. You don’t have to look far for examples; Earlier this year, streamers who had been faked felt their opportunities to seek justice were severely limited.
Most laws dealing with these issues attempt to apply “meatspace laws” to web issues, says Ryan Black, a video game industry-focused attorney who served on the GDC panel alongside Mantegna. Additionally, Black tells WIRED that they are too “territorial” to meaningfully impact any given platform. “To the extent that there are no rules and laws, we have essentially ceded control and authority over their terms and conditions to the operator,” he says. People’s relationship with the modern Internet is “essentially a provider-to-user relationship,” he says.