Social media emerged in its primitive form way back in the late 90s, and an explosion of platforms followed. Friendster (2002), Myspace (2003), Facebook (2004), YouTube (2005), Twitter (2006), Tumblr (2007) and all the many others. While it was popular among younger people, mainstream adoption and the emerging longterm effects didn’t really start to appear until the 2010s.
This last decade has been an array of discussions and debates about the role of social media in our society. Topics like free speech, fake news, private terms and conditions, online bullying, and spam are recurring concerns. Free speech is championed by people like Elon Musk but there is very little addressed about the issues that come up with that. Misinformation, spamming, harassment – where are the limits? And on the other side of the debate – what happens when a private company can decide who gets silenced on a platform of billions of people?
Beyond the issue of free speech for users, there is also advertising. Marketing companies feed our biases rather than have us question them. Russian ads on Facebook were a hot topic during the 2016 American presidential run. Marketing in the Metaverse could utilize strategies like product placement or environment editing to steer people towards specific items or ideas. They could be spammed by bots into our environments constantly.
As nearly everyone knows, social media is meant to be addictive. There is a whole job category of UX/UI designers whose mission is to make these platforms fun to look at and navigate around. In the Metaverse, there is greater room for influence. Reality bending platforms could shift people’s world view far more effectively than the algorithms on Facebook’s feed. Political campaigns could paint certain pictures that are seen and surrounded by millions on digital platforms.
Data brokers love social media. They gather data on what you linger on, what you like, who you talk to, who you follow, and more. They’d love a fully-realized Metaverse even more, where they’d have complete behavior tracking. They can follow where you go, how your eyes wander, how your hands move – your overall body language and sell that data to anyone.
The decentralized platform Decentraland has a governing system where users make decisions and vote, rather than a company board. Experiments like this could be an interesting avenue to explore outside of the standard terms and conditions of social media platforms. Instead of banning users for misinformation, misinformation notifications like what appears under certain YouTube videos or tweets could be effective at curbing influence towards lies with backing from peer-reviewed science and fact checking.
The internet was thought of as a decentralized technology at first, but became heavily centralized as private companies ate up more of our attention for the sake of convenience. It’s why despite cryptocurrency being decentralized, people still gravitate towards centralized crypto exchanges like Coinbase. This is when tech monopolies start calling the shots on millions of people without user input. The Metaverse might follow a similar path or a standard digital asset transfer protocol surrounding technology like NFTs might help keep ownership more user based rather than company based.
The discourse continues as there are fair concerns on both sides of the debate on who gets to decide what. What’s certain though is that the problems and benefits of social media are put to new heights when you add in extended reality platforms to the mix.