The metaverse could change your life in the same way that bill-splitting apps revolutionised group dinners and smartphones turned landlines into vintage furniture. If you’re nodding along but aren’t entirely sure what the metaverse means – let alone means for you – think of it as immersive technology where instead of viewing content, you’re in the content. To get in, you need to wear a VR headset, design an avatar (the on-screen ‘you’) and pick an app – which offer virtual versions of pubs, games, countries and concerts, all accessible while chilling in your living room in your PJs.
In the metaverse, the potential for social interaction is massive. Home-working? Invite colleagues’ avatars to a digital table and brainstorm as if you were together. Long-distance friendship? Meet virtually in Paris for coffee. Moved back in with your parents? Curate your perfect virtual pad, complete with NFTs hanging on the walls (yep, even NTFs make sense in the metaverse) and a cosy fireplace. Or get backed into a corner by a group of men who mimic sex acts with their avatars’ hands, laugh that consent doesn’t matter in the metaverse and tell you to shut the fuck up. Because like sketchy UV tanning beds that promise to singe your skin tropical in 20 minutes, the metaverse has a dark side.
Catherine Allen, an immersive media consultant, is unpicking what the metaverse could mean for women – both in terms of opportunities and threats. “There is so much to improve the lives of young women – you can get involved in fun exercise, learn new skills, improve your mental health via meditation apps or hang out with friends. However, as much as I am excited about the metaverse, I can also see all the things that could go wrong. And that stuff keeps me up at night.”
Allen first became aware of sexist harassment in open metaverse spaces – places where you interact with strangers – in 2017, during research in Microsoft’s AltspaceVR app. Among her focus group, she noticed that anyone with a female avatar kept getting accosted: men made inappropriate comments and tried to get them alone or find out their personal contact details. “Since 2017, it has only got worse,” she tells Glamour.
Last year, Allen was waiting in the lobby of Meta’s (Facebook’s) Horizon Venues – a platform where crowds of avatars watch music concerts and sporting events. “I started talking to the other female avatar in the room, only to discover that she was a child – she told me she was seven. We chatted for a few minutes before we were suddenly interrupted by a big group of men who joked that there were so many of them they could gang rape us.” Allen immediately moved her avatar between the men and the girl, warning them that the girl was a child. “They did back off, but even if they thought it was banter, comments like those are not OK,” she adds, frustrated, noting that although Meta’s lower age limit is 13 (meaning the girl shouldn’t have been there), it’s easy to misinterpret people’s ages as the avatars available all look between around 21 and 50-years-old.