Davos Agenda

We need to make the metaverse safe for everyone. Here's how

The metaverse is bursting with possibility. It's up to us to make sure it's filled with positivity, too

The metaverse is bursting with possibility. It's up to us to make sure it's filled with positivity, too. Image: Pixabay/Tumisu

Mark Read
Chief Executive Officer, WPP
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Davos Agenda

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

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  • The metaverse is bursting with exciting potential; it's up to all of us to ensure it's safe, too.
  • We need to design better algorithms and business models that put safety first - especially for younger users.
  • If we get this right, the opportunities for businesses and metaverse users could be boundless.

It’s always exciting to be in at the start of things. There are so many possibilities, and so much opportunity to shape them. The potential for the metaverse is huge (some commentators put the total market for trading in metaverse-like environments at around $1.3 trillion) and myriad voices will determine what it will look like. While embracing this positivity, it is important to acknowledge the challenges and tackle them head on. We need a metaverse for good, especially where children are concerned.

Gaming apps like Roblox and Fortnite, and virtual reality headsets, have created the gateway to a virtual environment that is now playing host to millions of people each day, with participation very heavily skewed towards children and young people. In fact, there are up to 55 million daily average users on Roblox and around 25 million on Fortnite – and reports put around 67% of Roblox users under the age of 16. It is all happening fast, without clear codes of behaviour or ethics in place.

Children are in front of more games across more devices for longer – partly because of the pandemic. They are witnessing wide-ranging behaviour (including abuse, if they are not monitored). And monitoring itself is becoming so much more of a challenge. All this is taking place within the context of a teen mental health crisis.

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A safe metaverse should be achievable

A safe and secure virtual environment is the only type of metaverse children should visit.

That is why tools, like those developed by SuperAwesome, are so welcome, and that is why WPP has entered into a global partnership with them. These tools ensure both safe digital engagement for children, and the application of privacy and advertising standards across children’s virtual experiences.

It is not surprising that a survey conducted by WPP company Wunderman Thompson showed that 72% of parents who are familiar with the metaverse are worried about their children’s privacy in the metaverse, and 66% are concerned about their safety. That is why companies are already building virtual immersive experiences dedicated to young people themselves, in which their privacy and safety are protected.

But this is just the start. If the metaverse in its entirety is to be a truly safe place for our children (and for ourselves), we must learn how to design better algorithms and business models, and intervene well. Designing mechanisms for 'doing better' is not beyond an ecosystem that is responsible for designing a virtual world in the first place.

There are some quick wins. The metaverse cannot just happen – so what do we need to do? How about rewarding and incentivizing positive behaviour and community-building?

We have seen how pure anonymity can create problems. How do we encourage people to show up and be themselves in virtual environments, and how do we make sure they are protected when they do so?

Anticipating new behaviours should surely be part of the mix. The metaverse enables immersive, 3D digital experiences and actions not seen before, but we are also seeing a new set of behaviours, some of them worrying, and many of which should not surprise us. They are reminiscent of the online virtual world Second Life, which launched all the way back in 2003. We have seen a start with Meta’s personal boundary approach to addressing harassment in its virtual reality space, Horizon World – but is it enough?

To be safe, the metaverse must include lots of voices

We have seen that good things happen when positivity becomes a business imperative. That's where we're at now. It’s why it’s so important for the net to be cast widely when building these environments, and for there to be far-reaching and diverse participation in the opportunities they afford.

Market forces will also be a determinant. But importantly, proactive self-scrutiny, and coming together as an industry – as a true ecosystem – is how we will succeed in building a metaverse for good.

If we can get it right, the metaverse will be truly exciting

The metaverse offers exciting opportunities for companies if it is safe. There will be different surfaces, objects, clothing and footwear on which companies can display their brands. It is the commercial opportunities that this affords that will support and build the metaverse we want.

Under Armour is a case in point. When it decided to celebrate the star basketball player, Stephen Curry, in an immersive virtual way, the very first metaverse wearable was created – a sneaker.

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The sneaker was released in a limited edition of 2,974 NFTs, reflecting the athlete’s world record. Gaming platforms (Decentraland, Sandbox, Gala Games and Rumble Kong League) enabled gamers to move through the metaverse, acquiring and wearing the same sneaker. The NFTs sold out in minutes, and the goal to raise $1 million for Under Armour’s charities was reached instantly.

But brand safety, transparency and measurable outcomes will not always be hard-wired into metaverse-like campaigns. Just as governance and risk frameworks don’t yet exist, neither do protocols for achieving commercial transparency. It will only become more difficult to put these protocols in place retrospectively, especially across decentralised platforms.

We are building the metaverse from scratch – the opportunities are huge, provided we tackle the issues head on and together.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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