Think Pieces

The metaverse, NFTs, and FLoC: three tech trends charities should know about

The biggest trend in tech is often unpredictability. Just as we get used to the next big platform, it ceases to matter. Just as we fork out on a new smartphone, a smarter one replaces it. Though the concept of a metaverse was predicted–albeit by a sci-fi author–the way in which virtual reality, blockchain, and ever-changing data regulations will affect charities is leaving the sector guessing. That said, there are some concrete facts, so we put our heads together to carve out where the possibilities lie. Here’s all your charity needs to know about three next-generation tech trends.

By Amy Johnson · November 26, 2021

1. The metaverse is coming… or multiple metaverses (…metaversae?)

Late in October, Mark Zuckerberg announced Facebook’s rebrand to Meta including subsequent plans to build the metaverse. Even if you didn’t watch the announcement, you probably felt the response.

Twitter was swamped with knee-jerk reactions; people despairing at the idea of the-artist-formerly-known-as-Facebook owning the entire virtual world. What’s more, their despair was understandable, especially at a time when Facebook is in the midst of various intertwining crises. Zuckerberg being our virtual sphere’s dystopian overlord is a terrifying prospect. Realistically though, it probably won’t happen that way.

More quietly, companies like Microsoft and Epic Games are also planning to build their own metaverse. Several rival metaverses, owned by different companies, are more likely.

woman wearing VR goggles and gloves
virtual render of a large archway and a person about to enter
pixels making up a person reaching out

What is a metaverse?

Put simply: a virtual world, one that is always there for users to dip in and out of. The metaverse will combine existing tech like virtual and augmented reality, with 3D avatars to represent individuals. If you are familiar with games like Fortnite or Minecraft (or even Second Life!) it’s not a million miles away from that. Anything from a music festival to a board meeting could take place in the metaverse.

Users will likely have to use headsets or digital glasses to access the metaverse, bringing up all kinds of ethical issues around digital exclusion that we already face with traditional tech. Facebook’s current equipment offering, the Oculus Quest 2, retails at £299. Though it’s actually being sold at a loss to Facebook (to solidify their plans to own the metaverse) £299 is still a lot of money for one headset, more money than many families can afford.

But the headsets and glasses–and how they’re used–will have changed drastically by the time the metaverse appears fully formed. The tech on offer currently is just a warmup.

Over the next few years, there will be huge advancements in how we embed digital technology in eyewear. So much so, that the metaverse may not even be accessed with a headset which excludes the world around us… rather, it will be layered on top of the real world.

Will we be wearing smart glasses on the street, so that as we pass by we can see the reviews of a café, or even which of our friends are in that café? It seems inevitable that the technology will reach that stage soon.

Charity sector relevance

There hasn’t been a tonne of thinking around what role charities will play in the metaverse. Although the word ‘metaverse’ was coined back in 1992 by a science fiction author, concrete plans by the big tech companies have only just been released, plans that will take years to actualise. Still, some folks in the sector have already started floating ideas around.

a tablet showing a virtual render of a world

For example, the immersive nature of the metaverse has led to concepts like virtually ‘walking someone through a natural disaster zone’ in the hope of inspiring donations.

Charity events are a very real possibility in the metaverse. Picture it: Receiving an invitation to a metaverse fundraising concert, full of dancing 3D avatars and donation stickers hovering above like digital disco balls. Or a virtual London Marathon, which looks real in the metaverse but is actually just full of people running on their treadmills at home.

Perhaps the most life-changing realm of possibility is the metaverse’s ability to make you feel like you are in the same room with someone on the other side of the world. For a lot of people this could provide powerful peer support in a way that just wouldn’t be possible otherwise. People living with rare diseases spread across the world, for example. Or children living with a condition like cystic fibrosis who have to stay away from others with the same condition, as they carry bacteria that could be harmful to each other… Could the metaverse provide a pretty magical solution to that challenge?. 

It’s too early to pinpoint whether the metaverse’s main source of potential for charities will come in the form of marketing, service delivery, fundraising, all of the above, or none of the above. But like it or loathe it, the metaverses are coming.

2.  NFTs going mainstream

What is an NFT?

NFTs are very much in the same vein as the metaverse. Non-fungible tokens are a way to sell virtual goods online with cryptocurrency..

NFTs don’t have to be digital artwork, or even art at all. It can be a piece of music, or a video. It can even be a screenshot of a tweet, as we saw with Jack Dorsey. It’s truly bonkers, what can be sold.

Right now, a lot of people struggle to take NFTs seriously, frankly, because all you’re buying is a kind of online certificate that proves ownership of, say, Paris Hilton’s digital artwork of her deceased chihuahua, Tinkerbell (yup). In reality, anybody can Google and download this magnificent work of art onto their phone or computer – I certainly have. The difference is, only the person with the NFT for said image officially owns it, and can therefore sell it.

blocks spelling out 'NFT' in front of a screen showing an NFT trading platform
a piece of digital artwork showing a cube
someone creating a digital drawing on a tablet

Again, the NFT activity that we’re seeing right now is just a warmup. So, whilst a JPEG that was supposedly made by Banksy doesn’t feel all that impactful at present, in a few years NFTs could be used for purchasing patches of land (whatever that might mean) in the metaverse, and more. An entire virtual economy of sorts will likely emerge because of this, so as easy as it is to brush off NFTs, it might be smart to keep an eye on them.

Unfortunately the environmental implications of using NFTs, like all crypto, is pretty poor, but this impact on the environment is also evolving. New NFT platforms such as Voice–built on sustainable blockchain–represent a step in the right direction.

Charity sector relevance

Some charities are already starting to think about NFTs, with some benefitting from auctions of NFT based goods.

New platforms such as DoinGud are on a mission to use NFTs as a force for social good – a main focus of their platform is giving a percentage of sales to a social cause of the creator’s choice. Interestingly, buyers can ‘follow the flow of funds from point of purchase to end destination’ and creators ‘can publicly display their positive impact on their profile’.

NFT creators are doing this independently, too. One of our talented designers, Christian, has created an NFT project and plans to use it for good. ‘Dank Dogz’ is a collection of 8,000 unique digital dog portraits (a neon green dog wearing red star glasses and an orange beanie, anyone?!). Having launched recently, Christian and the Dank Dogz team plan to donate 30% of sales to Dogs Trust Worldwide.

screenshot of the DankDogz website

Charities could create original NFTs themselves and sell them, whether on a third-party platform or through the charity’s own online shop. That would be a bold statement for any charity to make: we’re innovating, using cool new technologies to engage people and raise money.

There is a world of untapped potential when it comes to how charities can use NFTs, both right now and in the future. The main blockers seem to be a simple lack of understanding and expertise; cryptocurrency, blockchain, and NFTs are mind-boggling to newcomers. But take time to do a bit of research, and you’ll probably agree that there are many ways the third sector could be benefiting. To start, Reuters have an awesome, visual, plain-English explainer on blockchain, crypto-trading platform Coinbase have a comprehensive explainer on cryptocurrency, and Forbes have done a good job at breaking down what NFTs are.

It’s actually worth marrying the metaverse and NFTs up in your head to envisage these virtual worlds, their digital economies, and how your charity might find a place within them.

3.  Goodbye cookies, hello FLoC

Moving swiftly on from the world of virtual reality and blockchain, to the ever-exciting world of online data regulation.

Tracking users and targeted advertising is becoming increasingly difficult online. As a result of various public backlashes against the way tech companies handle data, we have a colossal event coming up in 2023: the cookie-geddon.

What is the cookie-geddon?

This isn’t a massive threat to biscuit supplies, although that probably will happen a lot sooner than 2023 with all the supply chain drama. The cookie-geddon is when Google will put an end to third-party cookies, which will limit both your ability to track users across websites, and the usefulness of your Google Analytics data.

a batch of cookies, some half-eaten
a computer screen showing a man holding binoculars with the facebook logo
a group of game pieces being separated into segments

Broadly speaking, tech companies are dealing with this in different ways. Facebook is burying its head in the sand because they depend on this. Google is trying to find technical workarounds to continue to invade your privacy but in a slightly more friendly way. Apple, on the other hand, is making a virtue of the fact that they don’t have much tracking technology, so they’re going full-throttle with helping users avoid getting tracked.

Just in time for the death of the third party cookie, Google’s new invention is called the ‘Federated Learning of Cohorts’ or ‘FLoC’. It has been rolled out for testing in limited countries.

Machine learning and AI will create anonymised groups of users who all have similar tastes and interests. This will mean that digital ads can still be targeted at users, just without companies knowing anything about who an individual user is. Google has a write-up of the idea behind FLoC which is definitely worth a read.

So, pretty soon the quality of our third-party data analytics will get poorer. Many people may stop using tools like Google Analytics in favour of creating and owning their own analytics tools which may actually yield slightly better data. But with FLoC (which supposedly is 95% as effective as third-party cookies) we will still have the ability to advertise to users in a personalised way.

Charity sector relevance

There are ‘sensitive categories’ that will be prohibited from FLoC-ing which could impact charities’ pre-existing marketing strategies. For example, cohorts will not be created based on people’s ‘personal hardships’ like illnesses, financial trouble, or mental health problems, nor will you be able to target people based on ‘identity or belief’ like sexual orientation or political leanings.

The cookie-geddon also has all sorts of digital marketing repercussions which impact all sectors. For example if your charity’s marketing strategy includes retargeting–where your online ads are shown to people who have previously interacted with your website–this process will probably change. 

Our advice for now

Hold off on hiring your Chief Metaverse Office for now at least. Instead, maybe take this opportunity to have some fun, experimental discussions within your charity. Keep an eye on the stuff happening within our sector and maybe even beyond. Who knows, allowing your brain to wander into the realms of the metaverse could inspire new existing digital activities in the real world.

These up and coming digital concepts may be unpredictable, but don’t brush off new technologies. If Paris Hilton managed to go from The Simple Life to being an NFT whiz, there’s no reason your charity can’t embrace our new digital future.