Presented by Together Labs
“We can’t put the genie back in the bottle,” I recently said at the GamesBeat Summit in January 2021 during the “Making Friends in the Metaverse” panel.
As the metaverse — the computer-generated environment where we represent ourselves and persistently interact with each other — builds up around us, it’s crucial that more of us keep looking forward with the question: “What can we do now to ensure that this new virtual world is not only as good as our ‘real world’ but possibly even better?”
And if that “better future” doesn’t include intentionally programming for better relationships, then we’re missing the greatest human need: connection. Countless studies reinforce that we’re happier, healthier, and even live longer when we have better relationships, feel supported, and believe we belong. Loneliness, on the other hand, decreases our empathy, increases our stress, damages our body, and wears on our mental health.
In an era where books have titles such as “The Lonely Century” and research reveals that over 60% of us feel lonely on a regular basis, and where documentaries such as “The Social Dilemma” highlight the challenges our industry faces, we have an awesome responsibility to intentionally approach product design with the purpose of helping to foster authentic human connections and relationships.
The metaverse must focus on connection
Nearly every game and social media platform is dependent upon people interacting, but we know only too well that just as we can be lonely in a crowd, participation next to each other isn’t the same as connection. As Shasta Nelson, a friendship expert and author who moderated our recent panel said, “Belonging doesn’t just come by sticking a lot of people in the same place — in-person or virtually. That bond can be, and must be, developed.”
The specifics of how people meet or what they say or do is infinitely varied, but the basics of how healthy relationships form is not. Nelson, who has a TEDx talk titled “Frientimacy: The 3 Requirements of All Healthy Friendships,” compiled the social science and concluded that there are three factors that must be present for connecting in meaningful, safe, and enjoyable ways.
At Together Labs, we have taken this framework as a way to not only assess what we’ve already developed with IMVU, VCOIN, and WithMe, but to also brainstorm where we might better create more powerful connections in the future.
We must develop for positivity
The first requirement is positivity. Nelson clarifies, “Ultimately, we want relationships that make us feel happy, or that increase our positive emotions.” She quotes science that shows we need a 5:1 positive to negative experience ratio to keep our relationships healthy.
Indeed, we know that even if somebody is a long tenure user and is very engaged, if they have enough negative experiences, they just leave, so how do we architect a space where we’re strategically thinking through how to reduce any negative emotions such as confusion, judgment, and failure, while also designing a world where we encourage more positive emotions?
While our industry has long understood the value of positivity when it comes to users feeling excited by storylines, feeling accomplished receiving rewards, and feeling celebrated by leaderboards, we have a long way to go when thinking about how we can expand our positivity lexicon by developing storylines, features, and experiences that foster kindness, empathy, acceptance, collaboration, gratitude, and affirmation.
To that end, at IMVU, we have 25,000 greeters who help new users to connect by friending them and introducing them to others. It’s a positivity win:win as the new user feels welcomed and accepted and the volunteer feels helpful and generous.
We must develop for consistency
We all want our users to have a good time — for their sake, but also because we know that’s what leads to them coming back for more. Which leads to the second requirement: consistency.
“Building a bond is not a one-time experience, but rather is developed by ongoing interactions and shared experiences,” Nelson iterates. “It is with repetition that we form a pattern that leads to us feeling safe because we know what to expect and what we can count on.”
Most of us might call this retention. We’ve long known that we need to keep them coming back — whether that’s through cliff-hangers and surprises in our stories, familiarity in how to play the game so they can master it, and ongoing levels to challenge them. Now, our greatest challenge is to figure out how to not only entice our users to be consistent on our platforms, but to provide them opportunities to build that familiarity with each other.
Jessica Freeman, head of marketing at Minecraft, agrees. As a fellow panelist at our “Making Friends in the Metaverse” event, she said, “It’s that shared experience that I think people are craving. It used to be that kids would meet on the playground after school. But as that’s not possible now, they’re meeting up in Minecraft to connect socially and to catch up. It has become this kind of virtual recess that they need.”
She shared some powerful stories of all ages — college students building their campuses in Minecraft so they could have online graduations, people meeting in the game and eventually marrying, and grandmothers bonding with their grandchildren by playing together across the country from each other. The platforms that will win in the future will be those that provide opportunities for people to gather and meet virtually, to bond through shared experiences together, and that provide new experiences to deepen existing relationships.
We must develop for vulnerability
Lastly, for a relationship to feel meaningful, we eventually need to believe we know each other as a result of those shared experiences and repetitive interactions, which leads to the third requirement of relationships: vulnerability. This happens as you start to trust each other and disclose more about yourself.
As Shasta shares, “What we want most from each other is to feel accepted and valued, which only happens when we feel like [people] know us. We need to ultimately feel seen by each other.” Of course, in a close friendship that could mean unfiltered self-disclosure, but she says that even in a brief interaction, we want to feel noticed for who we are.
Vulnerability isn’t something we often talk about in our industry, and yet all of us who create, and provide the resources for others to create, are doing just that. Creativity — whether it’s through allowing our users to create their avatars or design new worlds — is one of the most vulnerable acts of humanity. Plus, it allows for self-expression, the very beginning of revealing who we are to others, how we want to be seen.
Imagine a metaverse where we can all be seen in safe ways. Meaghan Fitzgerald, Head of Experiences Product Marketing at Facebook Reality Labs cast the vision for our industry in our panel when she said, “There’s so much work to do so that everyone — women, minorities, people from all walks of life, and however they choose to express themselves — feels like they can be themselves.”
It has to be more than simply giving people options of how they want to be seen. She reminds us that it’s our responsibility as the makers of these worlds to practice diversity in our teams, to decrease toxicity on our platforms, and to improve the safety and reporting mechanisms that ensure we have the opportunities to be seen in ways that feel good to everyone.
At a time in our world where positivity is running low, and fear, division, and judgment are high; where routines have been disrupted and there is less consistency; where too many people say they can’t be vulnerable because they don’t feel safe being themselves or feel valued for their uniqueness — those of us who know how to create new worlds have a huge opportunity to develop exactly what we know people most need.
Technology is too-often blamed for being the cause of our disconnection and loneliness, but I’d like to believe we can also be the solution.
How can we create virtual spaces that bring people together? What is it that bonds people in real life that we can replicate? What gets in the way with developing our in-person interactions that we can possibly solve to help and not hinder us?
Indeed, the genie is out of the bottle. Now, we get to decide what it is we want to wish for. I, for one, am here to say, “I want to create a world where people feel more connected than they do now.”
The conversation “Making Friends in the Metaverse” is happening next at SXSW on March 16, 2021 with Megan Fitzgerald of Facebook Reality Labs, Jessica Freeman of Minecraft, Lauren Bigelow of Together Labs, and friendship expert, Shasta Nelson. Join us at sxsw.com.
Lauren Bigelow is Chief of Product at Together Labs.
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