In a recent installment of what can be called a Metaverse and the Law series, I covered the possibilities that Metaverse platforms — and their innovative potential — present for legal professionals. There is more and more written about the Metaverse every day, and businesses of all kinds are dipping their toes into its virtual waters; but in the long term, what can we really expect from the Metaverse? How much of what we’re seeing and hearing is hype, and what is here to stay?
Now that we’ve had a little time to digest Mark Zuckerberg’s announcement of Facebook’s shift toward the Metaverse, let’s examine some of the early excitement around the platforms, and what we can realistically expect to see from it in the future.
We Can Expect The Hype To Continue As The Public Adjusts To The Concept Of The Metaverse
When a major technology and cultural phenomenon like the Metaverse begins to unfold, you will see large organizations begin to join in to take advantage of the publicity and opportunities for exposure. Marketers are constantly looking to identify trends to tie their products or services to — but sometimes the desire to ride a popular trend ends up being a lot of hype without the anticipated benefits.
Recently, there was a Metaverse event during New York Fashion Week. Like many Metaverse applications, the event resembled a video game experience, where one’s avatar interacts with others in the virtual world. Major fashion brands were represented in the Metaverse application. But as one blogger shared, her avatar fell off a yacht and she had to leave the Metaverse event as there was no way to get out of the virtual body of water.
Heineken launched the first virtual beer, Heineken Silver, on the Metaverse platform Decentraland as sort of “an ironic joke … that pokes fun at other brands.” I have to admit that is either brilliant or some of the best marketing “spin” on a misstep I’ve ever encountered!
What do these companies’ early forays into the Metaverse mean in the long run? As discussed before, the concept is still very new, and this early period is part of our collective adjustment to understanding the possibilities of the platforms. The hype period will eventually come to an end — but before it does, lots of companies and organizations will take advantage of the newness of the Metaverse to explore its potential.
Innovators And Early Adopters May Not Use The Platforms As Envisioned
Technology adoption can be characterized by five segments of the market that adopt for different reasons:
Innovators tend to adopt a new technology primarily because it is new or interesting. They tend to operate by their own rules and don’t necessarily follow established social norms.
Early Adopters are opinion leaders who are aware of innovations and tend to shape what innovators play and experiment with and find benefits that could have broader appeal. In popular culture, they might be considered “influencers.”
The Early Majority are more pragmatic and make decisions based on benefits of a new technology, product, or service.
The Late Majority are similar to the early majority in their decision making, but are more risk-averse. They still make decisions based on benefits and value, but they are more cautious and have a lower tolerance for making wrong decisions.
Laggards tend to adopt technology only when they are forced to or because they feel peer pressure adopt.
Technologists and inventors have a particular vision for their efforts, but those may not align with the interests of their earliest users. For example, when the Wright Brothers successfully conquered flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903, I doubt they were thinking that one of their early customers for the airplane would be the U.S. Army. In 1908, the Wright Brothers received a government contract for military planes, and just a few years later, their invention was already having a profound impact on the way warfare was waged in World War I. The U.S. Military was an early adopter of airplane technology.
Cryptocurrencies are another example: the technology gained traction among innovators and early adopters due to the anonymity afforded — and some were attracted because they could conduct black market transactions. Again, not the original intention of the creators of cryptocurrencies.
We Should Expect Unintended Uses And Behavior In The Metaverse
In practical terms, we should expect the Metaverse to facilitate unintended behaviors and attract users for reasons that don’t align with the vision of its creators. Black market activities? Drug trafficking? Money laundering? These are likely possibilities.
One disturbing aspect of the Metaverse is what I’d call the Grand Theft Auto effect. In the video game Grand Theft Auto, users get points for breaking the law and for killing the “nonplayable” characters in the game. In the real world, where people are expected to treat others with respect, there are societal norms and laws that curb bad behaviors; and when someone hurts another person or steals their property, there are consequences.
But in the Metaverse, it is hard to tell when one is interacting with a real person through their avatar. Behaviors learned by a generation of video game players, blasting away at everything in their way, may get in the way of meaningful and constructive interactions in the Metaverse. Already, Zuckerberg’s Meta has had to take steps to protect avatars from harassment on their platforms.
In the early days of VCRs, pornography videos led the market. Some research suggested that as much as 60% of video sales in 1980 were pornographic titles. Similarly, as Internet access boomed, so did consumption of online pornography. As the Metaverse becomes more widely used, innovators and early adopters should start to consider what those unintended uses and behaviors could look like so that solutions or regulations around the platforms can be developed in tandem.
I am an optimist at heart, but also a realist. The promise of greater interaction between people and machines in the Metaverse is great, but there will be hype, missteps, unintended uses, and probably even a dark side.
My encouragement for those building the Metaverse and those that participate in the early phases of Metaverse application is this: Please shape this experience to be mindful that it is a place of human interaction. Let’s be sure to make it a place that is known for good experiences and for uses that advance society and respects humanness. For attorneys, lawmakers, and citizens alike, we should use our voice and influence to shape the Metaverse world for good.
Ken Crutchfield is Vice President and General Manager of Legal Markets at Wolters Kluwer Legal & Regulatory U.S., a leading provider of information, business intelligence, regulatory and legal workflow solutions. Ken has more than three decades of experience as a leader in information and software solutions across industries. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.