The potential of the metaverse is huge, but for that to be realised in a beneficial way, brands will need to put ethics and empathy at the core of design, says Mimi Nicklin, Founder of creative agency Freedm.

The metaverse is already offering marketers a whole new set of complex opportunities and patterns for how they can engage, connect, and spend time with their audiences beyond previous borders. CMOs worldwide are questioning whether we will be able to optimise and improve customer experiences, marketing messages and employee behaviours in this highly sensorial and multifunctioning environment. And leaders, beyond marketing alone, are wondering whether we can build more empathetic models for society, their teams and their clients in these same spaces? The truth is that we already are, but the question is, will it last?

Are we even ready for the metaverse?

The metaverse offers a plethora of futuristic online worlds where people can interact and play, connect, shop using digital currency, and spend time together primarily through augmented reality (AR) or virtual reality (VR) headsets. It is the beginning of far deeper and immersive online experiences, but it is still so new that it is currently fraught with open-ended questions and uncertainties as to how we perceive each other in this reality. Will our social norms translate? Will we behave the same, dress the same and buy the same? Or will we all create a double ‘me’ with an entirely different set of behaviours and choices that the ones we are currently making every day?

Large brands around the world are designing and building platforms for their customers to engage and experience their products simultaneously in this space without knowing exactly where these engagements will end up. First mover brands we are seeing include Nike, Adidas, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Balenciaga, Coca Cola, Wendy’s, Samsung and Hyundai; even famous auction house Christies is engaging in the metaverse. The biggest metaverse real estate transaction has already seen a $5m purchase (by Curzio Research) and the traction is rising at speed.  

These brands are excited that they now talk to you one-on-one; that you can customise your engagement with them and choose the ad and product to entirely suit you. But in order to do so, the brands lose control. We are finding personalisation and curation at scale, but can we handle it? And can we create a world of so much value that it exists without the stereotypes and social realities we have been previously working within?

Two sides of human behaviour

Throughout life we are subject to social norms and learned biases that we inherit, experience, and build behaviour on. This reality is entirely shifted in a metaverse environment. When building an avatar to fit your chosen outlook, style and personality, your imagination is far less constrained by learned behaviour and you are able to create heightened, flexible and open definitions of exactly who you are and how you want to talk, live, spend and consume.

The data so far shows a double-sided reflection of our human behaviour. On the one hand, early trials within the metaverse have highlighted invasions of personal space, bullying and harassment, abusive language, and discrimination, but we are also seeing great opportunity for comradery, connection, and engagement beyond our existing boundaries.

In an age of hybrid and remote work, and new demands on customer experience, the metaverse is already increasing our ability to use our imagination to relate to other people’s experiences and to break down geographical and socio-economic stereotypes in a way we haven’t yet been able to achieve. We are seeing greater opportunities to connect with people within different countries, cultures, and religions, and a more overt commitment to challenging inherent biases.

Reframe for empathy

The ability to neutrally meet and understand others in a non-restrained environment means there is real potential to reframe how we see and empathise with each other at a mass scale. Personal space is taking on a new definition, social enterprise and community engagement is finding new paths to create impact fast, and friendships are being made and business is being done without any of the previous boundaries we worked within.

Health care leader DaVita has already successfully shown it is able to drive up patient empathy by using interactive, multi-sensory first-person stories and has used VR technology to allow learners to step into an entirely different world or into another person’s shoes with the result of increasing empathy.  The ability to see complex realities such as homelessness or domestic violence from an ‘inside’ context, for the first time for many, has seen positive impact on empathy levels across audiences in its research.

The inherent dangers of a metaverse world, including online abuse and harassment, addiction and increasing mental health and obesity problems, make it critical that the metaverse be created and stewarded with the most careful and responsible detail, with ethics at the core and with user safety at the forefront of its design. Fundamentally there is a human behind every part of the metaverse build and we must remember that where we go the platforms will follow.

Whether or not we can sustainably build a virtual world that is more empathetic will depend on our acute and specialist commitment to doing so. As pro-social creatures, human beings will naturally connect when given the opportunity to do so, but it will be up to the builders and the brands to create and encourage a landscape that accepts a new and more understanding and inclusive environment. We have a chance to create a powerful digital world that truly balances humanism and capitalism in a way that our world truly needs, but to do so empathy needs to be at the top of the agenda.

Nothing sustainably valuable to human beings has ever been created without an overt commitment to forming a solid, fair, and equitable value basis. This will be no different. For empathy to win in the metaverse, it will be us, the leaders, brands and people behind the platform, that need to change first. 

Mimi Nicklin is the CEO and Founder of global creative agency Freedm, a leading empathy expert, and best-selling author of Softening The Edge (2020). For more information go to Empathy Everywhere.