The metaverse opens up a world of possibilities and opportunities for event professionals. But what are the downsides of the metaverse, and how can we protect ourselves and our attendees?
The last couple of years have seen event professionals adapting to many new event technologies, with current trends indicating that this process will not be slowing down soon — in the future, planners and attendees may even be meeting in the metaverse.
A 1992 science fiction novel by Neal Stephenson, called Snow Crash, first used the term “metaverse.” Essentially, the metaverse is a parallel virtual universe that transcends the limits of reality and allows users to live out a variety of experiences in a digital world using an avatar. Now, in 2022, 30 years after the release of Stephenson’s book, the metaverse is fast becoming part of our everyday lives.
For event professionals, the metaverse is a much-talked-about topic, with many events having already taken place in the virtual space, like festivals and weddings. The metaverse has also been featured numerous times in the news (hello, Meta), boasts exciting new job opportunities, and opens the door for people to explore endless digital worlds.
However, the metaverse may come with challenges. Experts have warned that we must proceed with caution — with some stating that the virtual space could increase division among people, have a marked impact on mental health, distort reality, and lead to an increase in screen time addiction.
But the rise of the metaverse is inevitable. And while many have explored the benefits of the metaverse, what are the downsides? And how can event professionals best prepare themselves and their attendees to tackle them?
An event metaverse specialist shares his thoughts
To understand what the metaverse means for events, and the potential opportunities and dangers, insights were gained from Nick Borelli, Director of Marketing Growth of Allseated.
THE METAVERSE AND EVENTS
What relationship do you think events will (or do) have with the metaverse?
Nick Borelli: There are competing ideas about the metaverse that people debate daily. Most academics and conceptual specialists agree that there is only one metaverse — it exists in parallel to the internet, and it doesn’t exist yet. Either that’s true, or there are metaverse experiences that (already) take place and have for quite some time. In these environments, many themes come up that are relevant to events.
Metaverse experiences share a strong emphasis regarding a sense of presence, control over one’s identity, and a feeling of belonging — critical factors when designing event exchanges. I don’t see metaverse experiences as separate from events but, instead, a third way to engage audiences and participants with in-person and two-dimensional virtual events and social media — representing other ways communities can gather.
What are the pros of the metaverse in general and for events?
NB: During the pandemic, those with intentional experience and event design skills had their big A/B test in adapting to virtual events. Because of this, the pros and cons of in-person events versus virtual events each emerged in various ways. Some positives of virtual event formats include additional opportunities for people to attend, international scalability, and more attendee data. However, virtual events can lack engagement, an experiential factor, and become passive environments for consumption of content. But metaverse experiences can give organizers another venue to bring people together in an immersive and connected way while maintaining the pros of digital communication.
THE DOWNSIDE OF THE METAVERSE FOR EVENT PROFESSIONALS
The metaverse has been called a potential dystopia from a social and technologically-dependent perspective. What are your thoughts on this claim?
NB: Calling visions of the metaverse dystopian is the same language used when the internet and the emergence of social media from Web 2 first occurred. To say that these types of engagement have created a full-blown dystopia is hyperbolic — instead, they have given way to the scaling of certain social ills. Technology is a mirror and neither good nor bad.
Those who design the technologies incorporate their ethos into what is often adopted too quickly to give way to anything purely positive. Most of the fears regarding the metaverse are related to who has the most control of this space. Another level of worry is the additional immersion, which could lead to staring at our screens for more than five hours per day (the US average is already five hours per day). Further, there is concern surrounding a dislocation between fantasy and reality. Both were trends well on their way before recent advancements in metaverse tech but have the potential to rock industries and ways of life.
Additionally, the metaverse could become problematic for established power bases (like finance and media), with further decentralization potentially causing widespread sector disruptions. However, with the adoption of the internet and Web 2, we’ve seen patterns between vision, adoption, and reality — we should be able to avoid some of the past mistakes.
But if the same players from those original tech generations define the metaverse, we can expect much of the same pros and cons to come with this era.
What do event professionals have to be aware of regarding (potential) dangers and risks associated with the metaverse?
NB: Walled gardens [a section of the metaverse with restricted access, either because of a fee to enter or because of compatibility issues with hardware like headsets] are inevitable at the onset of the emerging metaverse, but they will stunt the growth of what could be something as extensive as the Internet itself. Outside of threats to the evolution of the metaverse as a place of equality, walled gardens will have the same data jacking for the benefit of the platform owner as social media experiences.
If you’re not paying for access to the experience, you aren’t the client and are, instead, the deliverable. In other words, the platform is making money by collecting data on your behavior, information that is highly valuable to digital marketers. With our platform (Allseated), we don’t own user data — the organizer does.
How do you foresee ethics and laws governed in the metaverse?
NB: Much of the existing laws that govern online activity will come over in a one-to-one way. Where things will get interesting is the state of identity and its expressions. IP [intellectual property] owners will have a lot of potential revenue in the form of avatar customization as individuals will want to celebrate their fandom. With that, there will be motivation from third parties to skirt compensation to IP owners for using their likenesses. Imagine a Disney representative confronting an individual in one of their parks for wearing a bootleg shirt featuring one of their characters. Something like this could happen in a scalable way in the metaverse.
How would our institutions deal with unacceptable behavior, identity theft, cyber crimes (data security), and harassment or abuse in the metaverse? And how would this relate to events?
Regarding events, one of our industry’s primary concerns should be educating ourselves on cryptocurrencies and the legalities surrounding decentralized currencies — a significant learning curve there that might be an issue very quickly in particular sectors. For example, what kinds of tax rules apply to virtual event tickets paid for with cryptocurrencies across international borders?
The behaviors that social media has been wrestling with for the past decade will continue in the metaverse: hate speech and online abuse. What constitutes hate speech and online abuse, who regulates it, and what the penalties are will depend heavily on evolving social norms and the pressures upon owners of either walled gardens or municipalities where users (in this case, event attendees) live. To give a comparable example from present-day social media, the implications of kicking someone off Twitter can hurt an individual’s ability to communicate their message, but there are a myriad of alternative options. If someone were to be booted from a unified metaverse, I could see ramifications as significant as someone not being able to (legally) use the Internet.
WHAT PLANNERS CAN DO
What can planners do to empower themselves and protect attendees in the metaverse while enhancing the benefits of the space (like engagement and learning)?
NB: Walk the talk — get out there and experience the metaverse for yourself. I work on an event metaverse platform, but I also engage in other metaverse-based spaces for social and gaming experiences because I’m in a frontier sector. We can learn a lot about people in this space. Technology is moving faster than we are emotionally equipped to process and deal with — you have to get ahead of the pack and immerse yourself. Get curious. Experiment. Have fun with it.
And most importantly, when designing and protecting your community, we need to embrace diversity in planning processes. Surround yourself with individuals from varied places and who see the world differently than you. Take all their experiences into account when planning your events. Duty of care extends to people’s mental and emotional health as well — just because you are planning an event in a metaverse setting doesn’t exempt you from the responsibilities you take on when hosting others in a space.
The metaverse in 2022
What can we expect to see in 2022 within this space?
NB: In the near future, and what we can anticipate, all depends on established organizations as they pivot to the metaverse. Since these businesses have enormous megaphones, they have the advantage of steering the future. There is also always a native disruptor who will emerge fully formed in the metaverse that could change everything based on the merits of their ideas. The chances of them being purchased and rolled into existing organizations are just as real as it’s been in the past two generations (like Time Warner buying AOL or Facebook buying Oculus). What we can anticipate, however, is an increased demand for visions of the metaverse to be available sooner rather than later. At Allseated, we currently focus on the larger metaverse while simultaneously delivering metaverse experiences in the present.
The future largely depends on how many ecosystems can survive what users demand. Users did not want multiple Internets, but they’ve been using TikTok alongside Facebook (now Meta) for a while now — the same can be said of mobile app stores. The biggest question facing the potential of the metaverse is “Metaverse or Metaverses?”
The answer to that will radically change what we should expect and how we design experiences in the metaverse as event professionals.
For another look at the metaverse and what it could mean for event professionals, check out EventMB’s post featuring Brandt Krueger.