Lost in the metaverse? How digital anthropology can help leaders navigate uncertain futures

Building a safe and fair metaverse.

Building a safe and fair metaverse. Image: Freepik.

Gabriela Ramos
Assistant Director-General for the Social and Human Sciences, UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization)
James Ingram
CEO of the Liiv Group, Founder of the Liiv Center for Innovation in Digital Anthropology
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  • The rapid growth of the metaverse exposes a host of ethical implications.
  • Leaders must act quickly to build a safe, accessible, inclusive virtual world.
  • An anthropological approach to data analysis can address human concerns.

By 2030, 700 million people will inhabit the metaverse. These digital worlds offer endless possibilities for human interactions and social transformations, but they also come with inherent threats. Without a deep understanding of the cultures and dynamics at play, we risk losing our ethical bearings. To fully grasp the human experience in the metaverse, we need to embrace new fields of social sciences such as digital anthropology.

Creating a metaverse that works for everyone

The metaverse promises to seamlessly blend our physical and virtual lives, as the digital world moves towards an immersive and interactive future where humans and artificial intelligence (AI) coexist (as glimpsed by ChatGPT). The challenge is creating virtual worlds that are truly inclusive and ethical.

The question of how to shape the metaverse was discussed at the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting in Davos in 2022 and in 2023, and twice Chris Cox, Chief Product Officer of Meta, framed the metaverse as merely a technical evolution of the internet, downplaying its potential social impact. Cox repeatedly described it as simply "the internet, but less flat". In contrast, Tom Boellstorff, a pioneering anthropologist exploring metaverse-like worlds, has called for an open the debate about what the metaverse is, recognizing how its definition will mould new social norms and standards.

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Many uncertainties linger: Will the metaverse produce more or less disinformation? Will children be safe from inappropriate content? Will gaming and pornography drive its evolution? Will it extend discrimination and inequalities? We don't know, and that's worrying.

As the metaverse evolves, leaders need to consider how culture, technology and behaviours are intrinsically linked to ensure better outcomes for both businesses and society.

Decoding digital culture

To understand digital human cultures, decision-makers must bring “thick data” to the conversation with speed and scale. Thick data is the emotions, stories, meanings and tones of a situation. This data is implicit, often invisible, and traditionally gathered through human observations.

Digital anthropology leverages thick data, which provides qualitative and contextual insights, to better understand digital communities. When combined with big data, which provides a quantitative and statistical perspective, digital anthropology can reveal the human perspectives that are often missing from our analysis. Also, digital anthropology's thick data informs better decision-making while avoiding biases and short-sightedness.

With digital anthropology tools, the metaverse can benefit everyone, as leaders can use them to counter discrimination, exclusion and exploitation of cognitive biases. For example, suppose data scientists identify a digital community that distributes threatening deepfake videos. In that case, digital anthropologists, equipped with new methods and technical innovations, could uncover the social and cultural reasons behind this behaviour and reveal the values that underpin this damaging practice. This science can also help us to protect women from online discrimination and violence, as we have confirmed in our work in 2022.


How is the World Economic Forum contributing to the metaverse?

How to observe the human side of the metaverse

The first step for a team that wants to integrate human insights into its thinking is to observe the digital world without prejudice and immerse itself in online communities. The next step is to scale the scope and speed of its observations using technology. Instead of humans, imagine bots hiking through virtual worlds and delivering selected observations to multidisciplinary research teams. These bots are created with what we call “cultural algorithms” and they have been recently used to monitor electoral violence and moderate extreme speech online.

Unlocking this new layer of observational data can spark a virtuous cycle of innovation and trust. When decision-makers understand and react to the behaviour and values of their digital audiences, institutions work better. This, in turn, helps institutions become value-driven and better aligned with their communities, leading to increased trust and support. This virtuous circle may be key in restoring confidence in institutions.

Communities, consumers and social movements have the power to disrupt global institutions, markets, and belief systems using social media. They can divide us or bring us together on peaceful common ground. The metaverse will be the next arena for them to act. But these new worlds are fragile, and we only have one opportunity to build them ethically and effectively for all.

As digital worlds continue to evolve and transform society, it is imperative that ethical considerations are at the forefront of their construction. This is exemplified by the worldwide adoption of UNESCO's Recommendation on the Ethics of Artificial Intelligence, which raises critical questions about the impact of this rapidly advancing technology on individuals and societies.

The metaverse is not “the internet but less flat”. The metaverse is a human system, a place for people, cultures and communities to come together. It is a human place that needs to be understood by the social and human sciences.

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