6 min read

Avatars, Permissions and the Metaverse

In the Metaverse, your avatar will be more than just a skin or cosmetic. It's time to flip the script on permissions as we wander through virtual worlds. Because avatar meta-data can hold the basis of a contract between you and a world.
Avatars, Permissions and the Metaverse

Your avatar may become central to how you spend time online. Instead of browsing websites, we'll increasingly move through spatial environments: whether virtual worlds or a digital overlay on top of reality; whether via VR goggles, AR glasses, or through a 3D web browser.

The concept of the Metaverse, at one of the simplest levels, is the ability to move with relative ease between these digital spaces.

Instead of logging out of Fortnite and logging into Minecraft, we'll just teleport, fly or walk (digitally) between two different parts of the Metaverse.

You Will Be INSIDE The Web

Let's set aside for the moment that you might need to do a quick costume change when you DO move between two differently-themed areas in the Metaverse.

(How the visual look of your avatar will be handled as more and more virtual worlds connect will be an intriguing challenge. I find it hard to believe that there will be a single "look" for avatars).

Instead, take a minute to understand how profound it is that you're INSIDE the places you visit.

On a website you're mostly invisible (except for, say, an online status indicator).

In the Metaverse, by definition, you will have presence. Other people will see you. You will become a participant in whatever virtual space you land in even if you do nothing more than stand there.

(As a side note, this presence may not always look like a game character. I argue that your car will be an avatar as you drive around town).

The spaces you travel through will include games, social spaces (clubs and concert halls, for example), worlds for education and entire continents filled with licensed/branded content.

In the Metaverse, you aren't just an invisible "user" like you are on the web (tracked by cookies and ad trackers, but a 'user' nonetheless). Your avatar is an agent, a person, an embodiment of YOU. And your presence is an act of participation.

Discord & Walls of Text

Discord may be the closest thing we have right now to a Metaverse. Although it's privately owned, it embodies a few general principles:

  • You can move relatively seamlessly between 'worlds' (Discord servers)
  • Although you have a single identity, you can customize it for each server you're on
  • There are a few global 'rules' but then each server can set its own. You're often asked to agree to community standards for a particular world/server.
  • There's commerce, community and a richer sense of presence than you get in a simple chat app: you can exchange virtual goods (stickers), there's a rudimentary commerce system (Nitro), and there are all kinds of ways to lock/monetize and share the little world you can create with your own Discord server
  • There are different types of media: from text to voice chat and video streams

Discord has done a really great job at creating a hierarchy of permissions. Each "world administrator" can set granilar controls for channels within a server. They can use plug-ins to set up leaderboards. They can set roles for different groups of people.

Now think about how this would be extended into 3D space.

Because one day, you'll be able to set up your own 'world server' with the same ease as you can on Discord. And people will be able to travel just as seamlessly between servers - bringing part of their identity with them, their wallets, the stickers they have rights to, their Nitros.

But there will now be some other forces at play:

  • Depending on the device you use, it will be possible to track your gaze, head movement, and other signals from your physical body
  • As we start to use mixed or augmented reality glasses, other people will be able to see us. You might find yourself in a (real) public park and not realize that video of you is being streamed to Twitch, or that your physical body has been overlaid with a character from Star Wars.
  • The spaces will be increasingly immersive and real. Forget about those warnings about flashing lights in video games if you have epilepsy: worlds will have the capacity to represent hyper-realistic scenes including shockingly-real violence.

To start, you'll probably end up on one of the massive world "continents" being dreamed up by Epic Games or Niantic, or inside a corporate world hosted by Microsoft and viewed through a Hololens.

But at some point, these continents (or Metagalaxies) will become increasingly connected. When they DO, that's the Metaverse.

And you'll move through worlds like you've signed up for 100 Discord servers in an afternoon.

Which means you may face 100 walls of text: each one outlining its own rules, privacy policy and terms of service.

The Clean Well-Lit Room

Fourteen years ago, I read an interview conducted by Tish Shute (joined by David Levine, a researcher from UBM) with Eben Moglen, founder of the Software Freedom Law Center.

It had a profound impact. Because it challenged my traditional notion of where responsibility should lie when it comes to permissions.

In it, Eben put forth the concept of the clean well-lit room (lightly edited):

I think what we really want to say is something like this. If you are talking about a public space you’re talking about a thing that has not just a TOS contract but a social contract.

It’s a thing which has to do with what you get and what you give up in order to be there.

There ought to be two rules. One: Avatars ought to exist independent of any individual social contract put forward by any particular space. And two: social contracts ought to be available in a machine readable form which allows the avatar projection intelligence to know exactly what the rules are and to allow you set effective guidelines. I don’t go to spaces where people don’t treat me in ways that I consider to be crucial in my treatment.

Its one thing to say that the code is open source – let’s even say free software – it is another thing to say that that code has to behave in certain ways and it has to maintain certain rules of social integrity.

It has got to tell you what the rules are of the space where you are. It has to give you an opportunity to make an informed consent about what is going to happen given those rules. It has got to give you an opportunity to know those things in an automatic sort of way so I can set up my avatar to say, you know what, I don’t go to places where I am on video camera all the time. Self, if you are about to walk into a room where there are video cameras on all the time just don’t walk through that door. So I don’t have to sign up and click yes on 27 agreements, I have got an avatar that doesn’t go into places that aren’t clean and well lit.

Or, put it another way:

Your avatar is your embodiment in the Metaverse. Your avatar will 'carry' around a wallet, an inventory and a (hopefully) pseudoanonymous identity. But it can also carry around a contract. This machine-readable piece of data can be used to "check-in" with virtual spaces and conclude: "No, this space has violence, and your avatar carries around metadata saying you don't want to enter violent spaces".

Spaces and People: Contracts on the Blockchain

A lot of years have passed since Eben's concept.

Today, I would revise this slightly:

Your avatar can carry around its terms and conditions. Instead of the responsibility lying with US to agree to the terms and conditions of virtual spaces, the onus should be on the SERVERS. I want servers...I want the spaces in the Metaverse, to agree to MY terms and conditions, and not the other way around.

And so my avatar does a handshake before entering a virtual space in the Metaverse. The space itself either agrees to my terms and conditions OR presents a counter-offer.

Imagine you have set your "permissions" to exclude violence, eye gaze tracking, or access to personally identifiable data. The server can counter-offer: "OK, but I need your name in order to let you participate in this educational event".

You can agree (or not). But your agreement happens in a very clear and granular way. You don't need to read a wall of text because the server was obliged to read YOURS and to only highlight the exclusions.

And this all becomes possible with the blockchain - a public ledger of these brief contracts between ourselves and the virtual worlds we visit.

The Metaverse Doesn't Need to be the Web

Theo Priestley recently asked whether Tim Berners-Lee new privacy initiative could be adapted for the Metaverse.

Which is another way to say: one the main inventors of the web got it wrong in the first place.

As we move towards interoperability between virtual worlds, and the Metaverse becomes manifest, we don't need to port over all of our old assumptions.

What's perhaps most exciting about NFTs and blockchain is the underpinning value of decentralization and methods for trust. (There are downsides to all of this, but I'll leave that for now).

If, however, we stil 'centralize' permissions, even at the micro-level of an individual server (much like how a Discord server can have its own community standards), we'll find ourselves clicking "I AGREE" a lot....again.

Terms of Service, community standards, privacy policies - they will all still be OUR responsibility to read. And let's face it: we don't.

Maybe it's time to flip the script.

Our avatars can be more than social signals. They can contain our list of demands, and it will be up to the servers to meet our demands, instead of the other way around.