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International Day of the Girl: How digital sex-ed in India and Asia Pacific is ending taboos around sex – and how censorship risks taking it all away

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International Day of the Girl: How digital sex-ed in India and Asia Pacific is ending taboos around sex - and how censorship risks taking it all away

She told CNN that her biology teacher in her home village in the southern Indian state of Kerala had spoken to the class about sexual intercourse just once and she didn’t recall learning much from that. So, when she found herself uncomfortable with her sexual encounters with her husband, she struggled to explain why or name what had been happening to her.

”I didn’t know about marital rape back then. I didn’t know even the term existed,” the now 32-year-old said, explaining that her husband never sought consent, nor did she realize at the time how much it might have changed her experience if he had.

Still, Manomi — whose name has been changed due to possible backlash for speaking out — was so unhappy that she says her mother “took the initiative” to help her daughter file for divorce, just three months after her wedding.

The young woman moved to the state capital and became an urban designer, but it would be years before she learned, through the social media posts of online sexual health educator Leeza Mangaldas, that sex should be “consensual, safe and pleasurable.” These “three things Leeza repeats everywhere,” Manomi said.

For Leeza Mangaldas’s 2.5 million followers across Instagram, YouTube and Facebook, she is a source of accessible and empowering information on sexual health and wellbeing — a subject that remains largely taboo across India and most of the Asia-Pacific region. According to the educator’s own analytics, 65% of her followers on Instagram are men and women between the ages of 18 and 34.

But Mangaldas’ ability to share information that her audiences tell her is useful, and which they say they are unable get elsewhere, is being hampered by changes to how social media platforms are moderated, she told CNN.

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Mangaldas told CNN she earns her living from paid partnerships with corporations and international non-profit organizations on her social media platforms, as well as from a recently founded sexual wellbeing brand. She began posting on YouTube in 2017, just as India’s #Metoo movement was starting and ahead of the Supreme Court’s decision the following year to decriminalize homosexuality, she said.

”I feel like I was one of several people at that time who were frustrated by this state of affairs when it comes to sexual and reproductive health and rights. And what I was doing on social media connected with a lot of people,” Mangaldas said. “There was definitely a desire for change.”

Today the 33-year-old, who lives in Goa, is one of swathes of digital creators, educators and health service providers across the Asia-Pacific. Through social media, they are working to reach the one billion young people in the region with information that various United Nations agencies call “digital sexuality education”: content focusing on safe sex (and safe online) practices, sexuality, relationships and gender.
The UN Population Fund, UNFPA, has for years made the connection between the quality of the information women receive and their ability to make their own decisions about sex, contraception, and their overall health. Recent evidence shows that “young people are extensively using the digital environment as a key source of information about sexuality” which does not replace but complements classroom sexuality education, according to a UNESCO report.

However, CNN spoke to nine content creators and sexual health experts in South and Southeast Asia who are raising the alarm, warning that their educational content is being increasingly censored.

Among the creators CNN spoke to, eight shared multiple examples of content being restricted or taken down and of being unable to run ads on some sex-ed posts.

Caught in the crosshairs of the platforms’ attempts to address the proliferation of harmful content around sex, educators’ posts are being pushed behind sensitivity filters and inaccurately considered to be pornographic material, according to the content creators. CNN spoke with six young people across the region who are largely deprived of formal sex education, who told CNN that they are afraid of making ill-informed decisions about their sexuality, sexual practices or how to protect themselves in abusive sexual situations because of this censorship.

Mangaldas and other digital sex educators are calling for improved content moderation, transparency, and more direct communication from the social media platforms on how they are applying their policies. “We can work together instead of against each other,” she said.

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Pressured to change ‘sensitive content’

The sex-ed influencers, experts from social change organizations and non-profits CNN spoke to accused social media platforms of arbitrary and inconsistent crackdowns which have pressured them into self-censoring, resulting in them deleting posts and, for example, avoiding references to human genitals.

Across Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and TikTok — where digital creators and organizations told CNN they suffered the most censorship — sexual activities and services are banned, and content that depicts sexual pleasure or gratification, including sex toys or fetishes, are either denied advertisements or banned. These policies come at odds with sex educators who are trying to explain to their followers about safe usage of sex toys or about female orgasms, the content creators explained.

Mangaldas believes the regulatory processes used by platforms are unable to distinguish accurately between nudity, sexual solicitation, pornography, art, and educational content. “So even when you are not actually violating their guidelines, often content gets wrongly flagged,” she told CNN.

Mangaldas said she started to notice more censorship in content moderation on Instagram, where she is the most active, when the platform introduced Sensitive Content Control in 2021.

The sensitivity feature is an embedded function which allows users to filter potentially upsetting content such as posts that may be “sexually suggestive or violent” in their Explore tab which shows recommendations from accounts users do not follow. Users over the age of 18 are able to manually tailor and broaden the amount of ”sensitive content” they wish to see.

In late July, Mangaldas received a notification from Instagram saying her account couldn’t “be shown to non-followers”, leading her to delete nine posts that had been flagged to be ”eligible for recommendation” again. Being restricted from reaching non-followers is also known as a shadow ban. The deleted posts include a video in which she talks about using lubricant and another explaining why some people cry after sex.

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She told CNN that after this experience, she began to censor herself more, for example spelling the word ”porn” using a mix of Hindi and English when talking about false expectations about sex and noticed a huge uptick in reach to followers and non-followers.

She also gave the example of a cropped image from a piece of 19th century French art showing a nude bottom that she originally posted in 2020 but reused this year. The new post was blocked, Mangaldas said, though Meta’s policy states that nudity in photos of “paintings, sculptures, and other art that depicts nude figures” is acceptable. The older post is still visible.

Online healthcare network Women First Digital (WFD)’s director, Tisha Gopalakrishnan, also spoke of ”rampant” censorship on her organization’s Facebook pages over the past two years. “It’s affecting operations, it’s affecting visibility, it’s affecting impact to a much greater extent than what we can deal with,” she told CNN.

Her organization runs three digital platforms to provide information and resources about safe abortion and pleasure-based contraception practices not only in the US but around the world, with the highest traffic coming from India. A combined total of 3.7 million visits came from the South Asian country between 2015 and 2022 — more than three times higher than the 1.3 million visits from the US, according to WFD data.

In June, the non-profit submitted a public comment to Meta (the parent company of Facebook and Instagram) to appeal several takedowns, one of which is the takedown of their entire ‘How to Use‘ page on Facebook, which provides advice on self-managed abortion pills.
The page was reinstated following direct intervention by global human rights organization Amnesty International who advocated on their behalf, Gopalakrishnan said. She added that Amnesty also helped WFD get their associated YouTube channel and Facebook page back online after being suspended in May for ”violating community guidelines,” with no specifics about what had been violated.

Gopalakrishnan believes censorship of abortion information stems from US domestic political affairs, even when operating in other regions.

”Abortion content has historically always been censored on Meta platforms globally, and the overturning of Roe v Wade just made things go from bad to worse,” Gopalakrishnan said. “In general, it is our experience that Meta policies are more reflective of current US political affairs than the local legislative and cultural contexts of the countries they serve.”

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When asked for comment, Meta shared information on its policies, which state that the company allows posts and ads promoting health care services like abortion, as well as discussion and debate around them. But content about abortion, regardless of political perspective, must follow the rules, including those on prescription drugs, according to Meta, with content that attempts to sell, buy or trade prescription drugs (such as medication abortion pills mifepristone and misoprostol) not allowed on any of its platforms.

After getting posts removed on Facebook and Instagram in 2018 and 2020 respectively, the founder of India-based sex-ed foundation Pratisandhi, Niyati Sharma, said her organization had to shift to a more creative approach to content that moved away from ”graphic diagrams or explicit imagery related to sexuality” to ones that are more educational, and focused more on prevention and protection, she said.

”For instance, we have a lesser focus on things like sex toys but more on hygiene or myths. Changing how we phrased the same content made a difference and also made it easier to appeal in case posts were restricted. We also changed our graphics to be a little more abstract since flagging algorithms don’t categorize those as nudity,” Sharma told CNN.

Getting content unblocked is hit or miss, multiple content creators told CNN, adding they rarely got a human response to their appeals.

“There’s a sense of acceptance, right?” Mangaldas said. “Like, OK, I need to use this platform. If no human being can fix this for me and I’m reliant on automated solutions, then my best bet is to just delete .”

The risk of miscategorizing content has been known for some time, and is, in part, explained by a lack of awareness among content moderators.

A 2020 UNESCO paper stated that “educational initiatives are not always distinguished from pornography,” and identified the tens of thousands of subcontracted content moderators who might reject ”sexuality education as pornography” due to ”lack of awareness or lack of time.”

Platforms say it’s hard to get moderation right

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When CNN asked to speak with them about content restrictions, and the challenges facing sex-ed content creators, none of the major social media platforms agreed to be interviewed. Most did not speak on the record, but did provide information on background and talked about the difficulty they face with moderation, as large corporations, serving multiple markets.

Meta’s policies on Facebook state that the platform restricts the display of nudity and sexual activity because some audiences within their global community may be sensitive to this type of content, which may be because of a person’s cultural background or age, highlighting that users can be as young as 13, according to Meta. The company further claims that its policies are applied globally in a uniform manner, and acknowledged that as a result, their execution can sometimes be less nuanced and restrict content shared for legitimate purposes. Its policies further state that photos in the context of breastfeeding, birth giving and after-birth moments, health-related situations (for example, post-mastectomy, breast cancer awareness or gender confirmation surgery) or acts of protest are allowed.
YouTube informed CNN that health professionals can apply to become an ”authoritative health source” on the platform, with a number of sexual health-focused creators and channels already available.

Elena Hernandez, a spokesperson for YouTube said: “YouTube Health’s mission is to increase equitable access to high-quality health content, and that includes sexual health. YouTube creators help make public health and sexual education resonate with people around the world, and we’re always working on new ways to elevate and prominently feature credible health sources on the platform.”

As for TikTok, according to the company’s spokesperson, its rules allow reproductive health and sex education content, such as content on the use of birth control and abortion, discussed in medical language. But they also said that moderating at scale means mistakes are sometimes made, and as such, explained the company will continue to invest in improving its systems, in training teams, and making it easy for creators to appeal moderation decisions.

‘How would people like me know about sex?’

India is among the fastest-growing populations worldwide, with almost 40% of the population under 24 years old. A quarter of the total population is under the age of 14 and adolescents and young adults (10 -24 years old) make up 27% of the population, according to a May 2023 paper on comprehensive sexuality education in India. Its writer pointed out that the country’s young people face multiple health and social issues that are easily preventable, adding that knowledge around sexuality and sexual health are limited.

The paper highlights how poor knowledge and attitudes are linked to high-risk sexual behaviors and practices, listing examples of the prevalence of intimate partner violence and teenage pregnancy being associated with poor awareness of sexually transmitted infections and of HIV and AIDS.

These findings are supported by earlier research. Scholars in 2018 wrote that “India has one of the world’s poorest sexual and reproductive health records among adolescents.” But they also found “widespread support” for sex ed among the population surveyed, which “counter[s] politicized efforts to ban sex education by state leaders.”

Indeed, efforts by the central government to introduce a national sex education curriculum in 2005, 2007 and 2016 were met with opposition from several states who said it undermined Indian culture and values.

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It is against the backdrop of this charged political atmosphere, coupled with high social media use — albeit less for women — that social media platforms have become relatively safe, and effective, sites to access sexual and reproductive health information.

A 2022 study among teenage girls in the Indian states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh found that those using social media had better awareness of topics such as sex, pregnancy, birth control, and HIV/AIDS, compared to non-users. But content moderation policies are now censoring and limiting access to vital information that can help young people make more informed choices and reduce harmful behavior.
As such, social media platforms have in effect become what one United Nations agency called “gatekeepers of crucial SRH (sexual and reproductive health) information,” who “withhold important educational content that is arbitrarily classified as sexually explicit”, to the detriment of the young people.

For 30-year-old Natasha Vijayalaxmi in Chennai, online educators and organizations have been a huge source of mental and physical support.

She told CNN about the dysphoria she felt, when she was younger, towards certain parts of her body, and towards the gender assigned to her at birth. As a transgender woman and survivor of childhood sexual abuse, she said her body had often been fetishized. As a result of these experiences, she developed negative perceptions about sex. But online, she said, she found people like her she could relate to and enable her to learn more about herself and how to think of sex in more positive ways.

“The sense that their vision of the world is something that is resonating with you…you find a lot of meaning in that,” Vijayalaxmi said, referring to Mangaldas’ work, before adding: “It’s really important (to have) greater awareness of sex positivity in this country in general because there’s so much stigma around it.”

Learning about the sex-ed content creators have faced, urban designer Manomi was indignant: “How would people like me know about sex if these people don’t put up content?,” she asked. ”I strongly oppose it.”

******

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Read other stories on sexual education from around the world

This article is part of The Talk, a series of stories, each produced by a different newsroom or team, painting a picture of the state of sex education around the world. During the month of October 2023, stories will be published by CNN As Equals, Kontinentalist, the Impact Newsletter, Unbias the News, Nadja Media, Suno India and BehanBox.

This story was edited by Meera Senthilingam and Eliza Anyangwe. Illustration by Alberto Mier.



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Christian family goes in hiding after being cleared of blasphemy

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Christian family goes in hiding after being cleared of blasphemy

LAHORE, Pakistan — A court in Pakistan granted bail to a Christian falsely charged with blasphemy, but he and his family have separated and gone into hiding amid threats to their lives, sources said.

Haroon Shahzad (right) with attorney Aneeqa Maria. | The Voice Society/Morning Star News

Haroon Shahzad, 45, was released from Sargodha District Jail on Nov. 15, said his attorney, Aneeqa Maria. Shahzad was charged with blasphemy on June 30 after posting Bible verses on Facebook that infuriated Muslims, causing dozens of Christian families in Chak 49 Shumaali, near Sargodha in Punjab Province, to flee their homes.

Lahore High Court Judge Ali Baqir Najfi granted bail on Nov. 6, but the decision and his release on Nov. 15 were not made public until now due to security fears for his life, Maria said.

Shahzad told Morning Star News by telephone from an undisclosed location that the false accusation has changed his family’s lives forever.

“My family has been on the run from the time I was implicated in this false charge and arrested by the police under mob pressure,” Shahzad told Morning Star News. “My eldest daughter had just started her second year in college, but it’s been more than four months now that she hasn’t been able to return to her institution. My other children are also unable to resume their education as my family is compelled to change their location after 15-20 days as a security precaution.”

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Though he was not tortured during incarceration, he said, the pain of being away from his family and thinking about their well-being and safety gave him countless sleepless nights.

“All of this is due to the fact that the complainant, Imran Ladhar, has widely shared my photo on social media and declared me liable for death for alleged blasphemy,” he said in a choked voice. “As soon as Ladhar heard about my bail, he and his accomplices started gathering people in the village and incited them against me and my family. He’s trying his best to ensure that we are never able to go back to the village.”

Shahzad has met with his family only once since his release on bail, and they are unable to return to their village in the foreseeable future, he said.

“We are not together,” he told Morning Star News. “They are living at a relative’s house while I’m taking refuge elsewhere. I don’t know when this agonizing situation will come to an end.”

The Christian said the complainant, said to be a member of Islamist extremist party Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan and also allegedly connected with banned terrorist group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, filed the charge because of a grudge. Shahzad said he and his family had obtained valuable government land and allotted it for construction of a church building, and Ladhar and others had filed multiple cases against the allotment and lost all of them after a four-year legal battle.

“Another probable reason for Ladhar’s jealousy could be that we were financially better off than most Christian families of the village,” he said. “I was running a successful paint business in Sargodha city, but that too has shut down due to this case.”

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Regarding the social media post, Shahzad said he had no intention of hurting Muslim sentiments by sharing the biblical verse on his Facebook page.

“I posted the verse a week before Eid Al Adha [Feast of the Sacrifice] but I had no idea that it would be used to target me and my family,” he said. “In fact, when I came to know that Ladhar was provoking the villagers against me, I deleted the post and decided to meet the village elders to explain my position.”

The village elders were already influenced by Ladhar and refused to listen to him, Shahzad said.

“I was left with no option but to flee the village when I heard that Ladhar was amassing a mob to attack me,” he said.

Shahzad pleaded with government authorities for justice, saying he should not be punished for sharing a verse from the Bible that in no way constituted blasphemy.

Similar to other cases

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Shahzad’s attorney, Maria, told Morning Star News that events in Shahzad’s case were similar to other blasphemy cases filed against Christians.

“Defective investigation, mala fide on the part of the police and complainant, violent protests against the accused persons and threats to them and their families, forcing their displacement from their ancestral areas, have become hallmarks of all blasphemy allegations in Pakistan,” said Maria, head of The Voice Society, a Christian paralegal organization.

She said that the case filed against Shahzad was gross violation of Section 196 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC), which states that police cannot register a case under the Section 295-A blasphemy statute against a private citizen without the approval of the provincial government or federal agencies.

Maria added that Shahzad and his family have continued to suffer even though there was no evidence of blasphemy.

“The social stigma attached with a blasphemy accusation will likely have a long-lasting impact on their lives, whereas his accuser, Imran Ladhar, would not have to face any consequence of his false accusation,” she said.

The judge who granted bail noted that Shahzad was charged with blasphemy under Section 295-A, which is a non-cognizable offense, and Section 298, which is bailable. The judge also noted that police had not submitted the forensic report of Shahzad’s cell phone and said evidence was required to prove that the social media was blasphemous, according to Maria.

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Bail was set at 100,000 Pakistani rupees (US $350) and two personal sureties, and the judge ordered police to further investigate, she said.

Shahzad, a paint contractor, on June 29 posted on his Facebook page 1 Cor. 10:18-21 regarding food sacrificed to idols, as Muslims were beginning the four-day festival of Eid al-Adha, which involves slaughtering an animal and sharing the meat.

A Muslim villager took a screenshot of the post, sent it to local social media groups and accused Shahzad of likening Muslims to pagans and disrespecting the Abrahamic tradition of animal sacrifice.

Though Shahzad made no comment in the post, inflammatory or otherwise, the situation became tense after Friday prayers when announcements were made from mosque loudspeakers telling people to gather for a protest, family sources previously told Morning Star News.

Fearing violence as mobs grew in the village, most Christian families fled their homes, leaving everything behind.

In a bid to restore order, the police registered a case against Shahzad under Sections 295-A and 298. Section 295-A relates to “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs” and is punishable with imprisonment of up to 10 years and fine, or both. Section 298 prescribes up to one year in prison and a fine, or both, for hurting religious sentiments.

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Pakistan ranked seventh on Open Doors’ 2023 World Watch List of the most difficult places to be a Christian, up from eighth the previous year.

Morning Star News is the only independent news service focusing exclusively on the persecution of Christians. The nonprofit’s mission is to provide complete, reliable, even-handed news in order to empower those in the free world to help persecuted Christians, and to encourage persecuted Christians by informing them that they are not alone in their suffering.

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CHARLOTTE HORNETS MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES You can follow us for future coverage by liking us on Facebook & following us on X: Facebook – All Hornets X – …

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What went wrong with ‘the Metaverse’? An insider’s postmortem

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What went wrong with 'the Metaverse'? An insider's postmortem


It’s now two years since Facebook changed its name to Meta, ushering in a brief but blazing enthusiasm over “the Metaverse”, a concept from science fiction that suddenly seemed to be the next inevitable leap in technology. For most people in tech, however, the term has since lost its luster, seemingly supplanted by any product with “artificial intelligence” attached to its description. 

But the true story of the Metaverse’s rise and fall in public awareness is much more complicated and interesting than simply being the short life cycle of a buzzword — it also reflects a collective failure of both imagination and understanding.  

Consider:

The forgotten novel

Ironically, many tech reporters discounted or even ignored the profound influence of Snow Crash on actual working technologists. The founders of Roblox and Epic (creator of Fortnite) among many other developers were directly inspired by the novel. Despite that, Neal Stephenson’s classic cyberpunk tale has often been depicted as if it were an obscure dystopian tome which merely coined the term. As opposed to what it actually did: describe the concept with a biblical specificity that thousands of developers have referenced in their virtual world projects — many of which have already become extremely popular.

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Snow Crash.

You can see this lack of clarity in many of the mass tech headlines attempting to describe the Metaverse in the wake of Facebook’s name change: 

In a widely shared “obituary” to the Metaverse, Business Insider’s Ed Zitron even compounded the confusion still further by inexplicably misattributing the concept to TRON, the original Disney movie from the 80s.

Had the media referenced Snow Crash far more accurately when the buzz began, they’d come away with a much better understanding of why so many technologists are excited by the Metaverse concept — and realize its early incarnation is already gaining strong user traction.  

Because in the book, the Metaverse is a vast, immersive virtual world that’s simultaneously accessible by millions of people through highly customizable avatars and powerful experience creation tools that are integrated with the offline world through its virtual economy and external technology. In other words, it’s more or less like Roblox and Fortnite — platforms with many tens of millions of active users. 

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But then again, the tech media can’t be fully blamed for following Mark Zuckerberg’s lead.

Rather than create a vision for its Metaverse iterating on already successful platforms — Roblox’s 2020 IPO filing even describes itself as the metaverse — Meta’s executive leadership cobbled together a mishmash of disparate products. Most of which, such as remotely working in VR headsets, remain far from proven. According to an internal Blind survey, a majority of Zuckerberg’s own employees say he has not adequately explained what he means by the Metaverse even to them.

Grievous of all, Zuckerberg and his CTO Andrew Bosworth promoted a conception of the Metaverse in which the Quest headset was central. To do so, they had to overlook compelling evidence — raised by senior Microsoft researcher danah boyd at the time of the company acquiring Oculus in 2014 — that females have a high propensity to get nauseous using VR.

Meta Quest 3 comes out on October 10 for $500.
Meta Quest 3.

Contacted in late 2022 while writing Making a Metaverse That Matters, danah told me no one at Oculus or Meta followed up with her about the research questions she raised. Over the years, I have asked several senior Meta staffers (past and present) about this and have yet to receive an adequate reply. Unsurprisingly, Meta’s Quest 2 VR headset has an estimated install base of only about 20 million units, significantly smaller than the customer count of leading video game consoles. A product that tends to make half the population puke is not exactly destined for the mass market — let alone a reliable base for building the Metaverse. 

Ironically, Neal Stephenson himself has frequently insisted that virtual reality is absolutely not a prerequisite for the Metaverse, since flat screens display immersive virtual worlds just fine. But here again, the tech media instead ratified Meta’s flawed VR-centric vision by constantly illustrating articles about the Metaverse with photos of people happily donning headsets to access it — inadvertently setting up a straw man destined to soon go ablaze.

Duct-taped to yet another buzzword

Further sealing the Metaverse hype wave’s fate, it crested around the same time that Web3 and crypto were still enjoying their own euphoria period. This inevitably spawned the “cryptoverse” with platforms like Decentraland and The Sandbox. When the crypto crash came, it was easy to assume the Metaverse was also part of that fall.

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But the cryptoverse platforms failed in the same way that other crypto schemes have gone awry: By offering a virtual world as a speculative opportunity, it primarily attracted crypto speculators, not virtual world enthusiasts. By October of 2022, Decentraland was only tracking 7,000 daily active users, game industry analyst Lars Doucet informed me

“Everybody who is still playing is basically just playing poker,” as Lars put it. “This seems to be a kind of recurring trend in dead-end crypto projects. Kind of an eerie rhyme with left-behind American cities where drugs come in and anyone who is left is strung out at a slot machine parlor or liquor store.”

All this occurred as the rise of generative AI birthed another, shinier buzzword — one that people not well-versed in immersive virtual worlds could better understand.

But as “the Metaverse” receded as a hype totem, a hilarious thing happened: Actual metaverse platforms continued growing. Roblox now counts over 300 million monthly active users, making its population nearly the size of the entire United States; Fortnite had its best usage day in 6 years. Meta continues plodding along but seems to finally be learning from its mistakes — for instance, launching a mobile version of its metaverse platform Horizon Worlds.  

Roblox leads the rise of user-generated content.
Roblox.

Into this mix, a new wave of metaverse platforms is preparing to launch, refreshingly led by seasoned, successful game developers: Raph Koster with Playable Worlds, Jenova Chen with his early, successful forays into metaverse experiences, and Everywhere, a metaverse platform lead developed by a veteran of the Grand Theft Auto franchise.

At some point, everyone in tech who co-signed the “death” of the Metaverse may notice this sustained growth. By then however, the term may no longer require much usage, just as the term “information superhighway” fell away as broadband Internet went mainstream.  

Wagner James Au is author of Making a Metaverse That Matters: From Snow Crash & Second Life to A Virtual World Worth Fighting For 

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