Building for Inclusivity: Deconstructing Metaverse Barriers by@swordfoosh

Building for Inclusivity: Deconstructing Metaverse Barriers

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I bought a striped red fox suit in the Metaverse, which inspired a reflection of the barriers we face to mass adoption from a technological, financial, and diversity perspective. But we're (most likely) heading in the right direction, so I'll continue decorating my room and hanging out in my fox suit.

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@swordfoosh

Swordfoosh

Clambering chaotically through the sloosh, coruscates the cacophonous Swordfoosh.

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Today, I bought myself a striped red fox suit for my Metaverse avatar. Before we get to the why of this equation, let me just tell you that the experience was not easy. And this is despite the fact that I’m not a complete beginner to DeFi – I’ve got a MetaMask wallet, I’ve got an OpenSea account, I’ve got ETH and I know to avoid high gas fees at peak times.

To avoid listing off all my complaints about the process I endured, let’s focus on the ones that have a resonance beyond my individual frustrations. First, there’s a lot of complexity in even understanding where to begin. Luckily, I had a bit of help. Before setting myself up in the Metaverse – isotile, to be specific – I was recommended to buy a personal domain.

The problem? My MetaMask browser plugin wasn’t allowing me to switch networks and would only show my MATIC account. It wasn’t much easier on my mobile – though I managed to get onto the ETH network, I couldn’t connect to ENS to buy swordfoosh.eth (my alter ego, if you’re curious). And once I worked it out and set it as my Primary ENS Name, it wasn’t showing up in the Metaverse.

But I was. As a bald white dude with a purple t-shirt in an empty room. Talk about the diversity of representation, eh? Luckily, the striped red fox suit was an easy buy, though at 0.033 ETH I can’t say it was super cheap, either. And that’s not even accounting for all the fees I paid to transfer out of my custodial wallet and to complete the transaction via MetaMask over OpenSea.

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If we think about the mission of the wider decentralized ecosystem, encompassing both DeFi and the Metaverse, it’s all about building a better alternative to existing societal and financial structures, but we’re still so far from even approaching this noble goal. As I’ve identified in the short interaction described above, there are barriers at every turn – from a technological perspective, from a diversity perspective, from a financial perspective – and it’s not even clear what it’s all for!

Recognizing opportunity builds inclusion

This last point is particularly interesting. What’s the point of going through all this hassle if the outcome doesn’t benefit you in any way? Since I work in the space, I can probably attribute it to (quite expensive) market research. But what about the people purported to be the key audience of the Metaverse’s ambitions? What about creating an even playing field across all demographics, all abilities, and all geographies?

The first thing to note is that, despite increased media coverage over the past few years, we’re still in the early stages of adoption. That tends to mean that while we speak of lofty goals of providing access to the disenfranchised, underrepresented, and unbanked, we’re really just focused on the earliest adopters. And the earliest adopters are already privileged in at least one way – they’ve recognized the opportunity and they have the means to capitalize on it.

Yet defining the opportunity comes with its own challenges, namely that opportunity looks different for different users. For me – as I imagine will be the case for many – it’s about finding something to be excited about. The whole sitting in an empty room playing the keyboard in a striped red fox suit? Not – pardon the pun – my jam. But now that I’ve discovered I can mint my own physical artworks as NFTs and hang them on the walls, my curiosity – and my entrepreneurial spirit – is piqued. Could someone want to buy an NFT of my painting, perhaps?

That’s the entire point. As long as you have an incentive to participate, you’ll seize the opportunity to do so. And, presumably, the more value you see in it, the more forgiving you’ll be of its current limitations and the more willing to dedicate time and effort to improve it – for everyone.

Do the building blocks matter?

Nobody cares about the complexity of the matter once they’ve identified the use cases that make sense to them. The underpinning technology fades into the background. Remember Skype? Who cared about how VoIP worked as long as it connected them to their families across the globe? The same thing needs to happen in the DeFi space.

A lot has been written about how user interfaces and user experiences within the wider DeFi ecosystem are deterring users. As a product manager in the crypto sector, I’ve encountered my fair share of non-user-friendly applications over the years. Not to call anyone out, but that includes fairly basic things like yield farming using non-custodial wallets to more complex activities such as liquidity mining using wrapped BTC.

What’s also true is that significant progress has been made. After all, it’s worth remembering that the technology is still fairly nascent, and as it matures – as new players and platforms arise – we’ll see new capabilities, new monetization engines, and most importantly, a bigger focus on the end user. Compared to even a year or two ago, DeFi protocols are considerably simpler to access – embedded in sleek wallets – for the non-discerning user.

Where, arguably, they should be. We’re no longer talking about first mover advantage, of course, but for mass adoption, understanding the intricacies of the technical infrastructure shouldn’t matter. It’s all about ease of use – for the majority of users, principles of privacy and self-sovereignty are just a perk.

Potential pitfalls

That being said, we can’t walk blindly into someone else’s definition of what the Metaverse is and how it is powered by DeFi when we have a unique opportunity to frame both concepts in a genuinely meaningful way. We’re already witnessing corporations staking their claim – luxury brands capitalizing on huge margins, the music industry releasing music as NFTs, and, of course, “big tech” and venture capitalists replicating traditional Web2 power structures.

The influence of the wealthy and powerful raises justifiable doubts as to its ability to cater to the interests of a diverse audience. Though the biggest incentive is the promise of increased interconnectivity, for the time being at least, access remains limited for the average user. While the ability to virtually spend time with family, play games with friends, go shopping, or engage with favorite artists might seem tempting, the Metaverse has the potential to be “dystopian”, with corporations like Meta (formerly Facebook) firmly in control.

Conclusion

The good news is that it’s not too late. Coming back to the central tenet of the entire experiment – if people are excited by the opportunities and if they buy into the possibilities, they’ll take ownership and they’ll build. It all comes down to the eternal question of whether this brave new world can offer the right incentives for participants to behave altruistically. If we can take this initial phase to embed those principles into the Metaverse and into DeFi, we can reap the benefits for years to come.

In other words, I’m not hanging up my striped red fox suit just yet.

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