What will be the social impact of the metaverse
The metaverse has the potential to have the same level of impact as the advent of the internet itself some decades ago.
From economic, political, and social implications to the vocabulary with which we speak, we are all likely to see a direct impact from the availability and adoption of the metaverse.
What will be the social impact of the metaverse? How will it change how we play, connect, relax and unwind?
As we saw from our previous articles on the concepts of the metaverse, and the technology stack that will achieve them, the current situation is that the metaverse does not yet exist. Despite having rules, and even some development kits, there is still, as yet, no actual, operating metaverse.
With this in mind, the best information available is informed speculation. With that caveat established, let’s explore the issues.
We humans are odd creatures. It has been well argued that our intelligence developed in large part as our social interactions, and therefore our societies, became ever more sophisticated. To be the social, collaborative, and cooperative species we are today, we needed to be able to sense what our fellow primates were thinking and feeling to a certain extent, and then act accordingly. If, as a lowly member of a primate troupe, you can’t sense that the leader of the troupe is annoyed with you, then it won’t do much good for your social standing or ultimately, your attempts to procreate.
Spin on a few thousand generations and this has had many odd developments.
One of these was when telecommunications developed. And this is even in the form of missive writing — long before the telephone. Cuneiform tablets from more than 5,000 years ago show a formal style in remote communications. People did not use the same language when sending a communique that they did in face-to-face encounters.
This is the phenomenon at play when people express outrage in print or online that they would not voice the same way in person. This is why road rage sees an exaggeration of behavior, as a dissociative distance gives a false sense of remove and security. This is why social media trolling has got so bad — we humans do not interact the same through remote means as we do in person.
There are now many studies that have delved into this collection of phenomena, such as The Psychology of Online Political Hostility: A Comprehensive, Cross-National Test of the Mismatch Hypothesis (Bot, Petersen, Cambridge, 2021). It argues that “mismatches between human psychology and novel features of online environments could (a) change people’s behavior, (b) create adverse selection effects, and (c) bias people’s perceptions.” Tell me about it! respond the social media masses.
Added to this are the dissociative effects observed in virtual reality (VR) gaming, and the sense of remove only increases.
Should this be a huge red flag for those trying to build the metaverse? Well, yes and no.
Now that we know these phenomena result from these technologies, steps can be taken to mitigate the negative implications. Forewarned is forearmed, as it were. However, research has also shown that there may well be benefits.
The metaverse will bring together elements of the ordinary internet, with social media, immersive environments, online games, and other work and leisure activities. It will combine them into persistent, synchronous environments in which people can spend time, transact business and engage in leisure activities. Therefore, a whole new set of parameters will combine in ways not entirely clear at the moment and so will result in some unanticipated effects.
We all recall the story of how the engineering messaging subsystem for mobile phone networks developed to become the SMS that took humanity by storm. It lives on today in everything from WhatsApp to Twitter. A side feature became an unexpected industry marvel.
The metaverse will likely be the same. Just as no one anticipated just how YouTube and other such platforms including live streaming, would become the political broadcasting phenomenon that would let grassroots movements grow outside of traditional media, the metaverse will provide opportunities for new modes of employment that will see entirely new phenomena grow and business models develop.
A 2021 paper from Nelson, Ridout, et al, looked at how VR could be used to manage Psychological Distress in Adolescents. The paper reviewed various trials and concluded that all studies reported “significant changes on outcome measures after VR treatment. Six studies reported small-to-large reductions in symptoms… VR technology can provide a safe, rapidly efficacious, and acceptable treatment modality for managing psychological distress in several key adolescent populations.”
Taking all these things into account, the metaverse has the potential to significantly improve our online interaction.
Firstly, the metaverse, being immersive, will likely mean that participants will more emotionally identify with each other. So even if your best friend likes to appear in the metaverse as 2m tall blue androgyne with leonine features, human psychology is such that the personification will generate more empathy than a flat avatar, username, or email address.
With this basic level of human interaction altered, the fact that more real-world actions can take place in the metaverse will likely further reinforce the reality of the environment and further ground people in it.
Digital real estate is expected to be a major part of the metaverse. Imagine owning the prime shopfront on the most popular square in MegaCityOne in the metaverse. With people able to get there digitally, it could potentially have a footfall in the billions. That is a valuable piece of, albeit digital, real estate. It would be bought and sold entirely within the metaverse. Similarly, ordinary users can buy real estate in the metaverse, to have something more permanent. The psychological effect is to make the interaction more real, decreasing the dissociative effects seen with the internet of something ethereal, without impact or, crucially, consequence.
Paradoxically then, the more immersive nature of the metaverse is likely to cater better to our need for ‘face-to-face’ interaction in a world that is more real where real things of consequence can happen.
Does that mean that people will lose themselves in the metaverse to the detriment of the real world? Well, yes, but we will, as a society, be better prepared for that and able to mitigate the effects. However, there are already examples of where even this can be of benefit.
There is a restaurant in Tokyo where waitrons are all robots. Better yet, some of them are remotely controlled by people who can’t make it in person. One such hard-working waitron is a paraplegic who uses a special interface to have their robot as their presence in the real world, serving customers. The same will apply in the metaverse. Any number of people with challenges that prevent them from fully participating in such activities could do so through a metaverse persona. The psychologist Peter Klein wrote that VR can aid in connecting with others without the perceived threat of direct presence, which can help sufferers achieve some form of connection whilst providing a safe environment to address their anxieties. The potential for inclusion of previously marginalized people is immense.
The social impact of the metaverse is likely to be complex, multi-layered, and ongoing. Entirely new modes of engagement and usage will have implications we can’t yet predict, but research suggests that our basic human needs in interaction are likely to be better served, with the potential to naturally reduce some of the darker elements of interaction in current environments.
The immersive features of the metaverse may ground us more with a familiarity that both reassures and relaxes. Being forewarned of the potential negative effects as seen elsewhere will hopefully allow the technologists to work more closely with everyone from mental health professionals to councilors and service providers to prevent the kinds of issues we know can manifest. AI will be critical in allowing systems to recognize behaviors that need to be addressed, possibly by disconnecting for periods.
The revolutionary potential of the metaverse is quite fantastic. With a better context available than the advent of the internet, we may yet navigate the emerging scene better than previous generations of connective technologies in terms of our own wellbeing.