Women in IT Summit USA 2022: A spotlight on Venus Ranieri

...and the impact Web3 will have on marginalised groups

Venus Ranieri is a marketing expert and a podcast host on the various impacts of social media and will be speaking on online safety within the Metaverse at this year’s Women in IT Summit USA 2022.

Ahead of the event on September 14, DiversityQ caught up with her to learn more about the Metaverse.

Venus, can you describe the Metaverse as a safe place for everyone?

The reality (whether virtual or not) is that no place can be 100% safe for everyone. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t precautions we can and should be taking regarding users’ safety in the “metaverse.” Especially now, while we are still in the early stages of VR environments for consumers coming online, and creating safe walls and policies is easier to implement.

Many example spaces – such as early internet chat rooms or interactive massive online multiplayer games like SecondLife or even Club Penguin – have helped prime user behaviour when it comes to engaging in digital worlds. They have also given hints at what type of negative behaviour we might see amplified in a VR version of a digital world.

Sexual harassment, verbal abuse, racism, grooming and bullying are all too common experiences for users who have been accessing these virtual worlds over the years. Club Penguin, purposely created with the intent to be used by children, struggled to provide a 100% safe space without creating an Orwellian dystopia. 

Women face a lot of discrimination in web2 environments; how can technology companies ensure that they don’t make the same mistakes in web3?

Creating solutions is hard if you don’t know or believe a problem exists. We see in web2.0 what happens when you lack diversity in designing these systems that exist as an extension of ourselves. And I mean that in diversity of thought, socioeconomic status, sex or racial/ethnicity.

Luckily I think we’ve seen a positive shift over the past eight years in the tech world, but there is still a lot of work to do when a majority of people never see the other side of these networks or products due to how they identify. I hope that tech companies and founders are: 

  1. Looking and recruiting more diverse talent to help build a digital world for the future
  2. Are doing the work to listen to the stories and concerns of women and any marginalised communities who are often forgotten in the design process and whose experience is second to the primary market of tech products – men. 

What is missing in creating an inclusive space where everyone can flourish? 

I think it’s essential when you’re talking about inclusivity in the Metaverse that we don’t just focus on matters of identity but expand that to consider the technical requirements that will require. 

Hardware-wise – to access anything resembling a fully virtual Metaverse requires expensive technology. While the price of headsets has followed the price performance curve over the past ten years, it’s still a wildly different experience for users using a top-shelf headset vs the cheapest model available to the general public.

On top of that, most homes do not have the internet connection necessary to join these virtual worlds. We will inadvertently create digital class systems, and while I wish that were avoidable – it’s a necessary evil for any economy. Additionally, many people are impacted by Cyber Sickness within headsets, which can prevent groups of people from being able to even experience the Metaverse due to the curve of one’s eyeball. 

From the traditional DEI perspective, we will need to see government regulations and protections to protect vulnerable groups within the Metaverse and ensure participation and cooperation from the builders and creators of these digital worlds that will exist within it. The biggest challenge I see us able to tackle right now is defining what rights you have in a digital world. This included defining what constitutes free speech, stalking, assault or rape in a digital space and what legal protections one has – complicated conversations often ignored or labelled as too difficult. If we leave it up to tech companies alone, they will continue to do what is best for their bottom line. 

Where would you start if you had the power to decide to create an inclusive meta-space? 

If I were to create the base infrastructure for a Metaverse, where the point is an open-source environment for others to come and build seemingly infinite connected digital worlds and infrastructure on top of said system, I would ensure there is a legal requirement written into the TOS for those companies, organisations or individuals to be compliant with creating an inclusive space similar to the ADA and with legal repercussion. And, if they are found to break the terms that they would lose ownership of the world they created, and it would go to a new owner, very Player One.

If I were building a world within this space, I would ensure the proper precautions of clear community guidelines with definitions of behaviour that isn’t allowed, examples of said behaviour, and clear examples of what consent is and how to ask for it in virtual spaces. VR is a powerful learning tool and can play a great role in helping people work through real examples/scenarios to understand the right behaviour for the situation. 

Do you think technology companies are responsible for creating an inclusive space where minorities can flourish? 

I want to believe that most companies looking to make a push into the Metaverse are going into it with the intent to create a positive experience for all users and with no intent to purposefully exclude groups of people. That responsibility in a digital context is more a personal feeling of responsibility than a legal one. Of course, even online, you cannot discriminate against any protected characteristics, but the definition of discrimination in online spaces is still spotty.

When dealing with platforms that aim to bring millions of users online simultaneously to interact with each other, you also give up some control of any user’s experience. So as much as it’s on companies to ensure their product isn’t outright discriminatory toward any protected class, a lot of the responsibility does lie on individual users to act appropriately. Creating safe digital environments costs money, whether in time or actual financial expenses– moderation and many companies will prioritise profit over building precautions.

If nothing changes, what is the impact on businesses? 

As a society, we will see the negative aspects of our current digital environments make their way into the Metaverse. The difference between web2 and web3 is that there is a screen division between you and the other person; however, in virtual environments, especially as visuals and hardware improve and begin to feel more like ‘real life’, so do the negative encounters. You won’t just see these experiences, but you could physically feel them, resulting in more powerful experiences for users and escalating into larger issues that could become lawsuits later on. 

Additionally, businesses could risk profit if they don’t create more inclusive spaces. Women, LGBTQ+, and POC users make up a decent portion of the population. Without adoption across these markets, the idealised version of a digital world that can overlay, augment and improve our physical one is impossible. 

As a social media expert, do you think influencers have the power to make a difference in the evolution of web3?

I think influencers have the power to sway public opinion and set trends. Mega-personalities such as Elon Musk have proved they have the ability to sway behaviour at scale. The biggest blocker to the adoption of web3 will be accessibility and a desire to join. Those already involved in gaming, crypto or any of the current VR/AR trends will most likely have an easy time adopting web3.

The power to make people feel like they’re missing out on something, be that exclusive events/experiences, products, etc., can be a powerful push for people to join their favourite influencers in the Metaverse. I worry about how they can play a positive role in the evolution of web3, minus educating their audiences and ensuring they align with larger companies working towards building an inclusive experience for as many people as possible. 

You can find out more about and book your place at this year’s Women in IT Summit USA 2022 here.

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