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2023 won’t be the year of The Metaverse, at least in the way that many conceive of it

Welcome to our inaugural Foresight update! This occasional bulletin will be where we make some educated guesses about what is coming up for the tech and media industry – and more importantly what it might mean for the BBC.

The informed speculation is brought to you by BBC Research & Development’s technology experts, advisors and forecasters, who advise the rest of the corporation on how tech will enable it to inform, educate and entertain over the next ten years. Recent developments have turned our attention to some new topics, so here’s five things we think you need to know in 2023.

We don’t anticipate a fully-formed metaverse emerging any time soon, but we do think we’ll see many more of the building blocks of what might eventually become a shared immersive online space continuing to emerge this year, largely driven by growing numbers of small start-ups solving specific problems and tooling advances provided by the big players. High costs mean headsets will not be universally adopted quickly and AR / VR technology is only one aspect of the vast and complicated tech-stack we’ll need for a fully realised metaverse. And while rumours about AR/VR headsets from Apple abound, but it seems that even their best designers can’t overcome the limitations of current headset technology.

It’s worth keeping an eye on the mergers and acquisitions in the works between big tech, gaming and media companies – we think that these mergers and the audiences, content production talent, research and technical expertise that they bring together will eventually build the metaverse of our imaginations. And we’ll see gaming – a metaverse portal technology – starting to creep into every corner of our homes, occupying more time on our main living room TVs and paving the way for ever more immersive experiences.

We’ll see some big shifts in the social media landscape this year

Twitter seems to be losing users, influence and loyalty (not to mention staff) since its change of ownership last year. Facebook saw users leaving and its revenue fall in 2022. TikTok has been on a high, while emphasising safety and integrity issues, but if 2022 has told us anything it’s that social media audiences ebb and flow for a variety of reasons but hold us in the grip of on ongoing thirst for connection. Regulatory impact, and continuing US concern over Chinese control, seem likely to limit TikTok’s reach, while others emulate its core features and will take its market.

We don’t think Mastodon and the other applications in the ‘Fediverse’ of decentralised services are going to be the next mass-market platform, unless a large player with plenty of clout and design & engineering talent enters the space in a way that makes the network much easier for a general audience to use and understand, or provides a simple way to publish to the Fediverse from existing platforms. What early adoption of platforms like Discord does show us though, is that the next generation of social platforms does not have to be about giant rooms where the entire world can shout at each other, but that smaller, more focussed communities that can communicate between one other in a more considered way also have value. This may help the BBC navigate this area.

The beginning of the end of the doom scroll

We have identified the problem of a growing (and exhausting) abundance of content in our news and social spaces, with generative AI starting to turbocharge this trend. Personalisation – offering a subset of content tailored to an individual’s preferences, or assumptions made about them – is developing but it is still a blunt instrument. A key theme for 2023 will be combining AI advances offering more intelligent and effective personalisation of both formats and content journeys with human curation to help audiences feel informed and not overwhelmed.

With doomscrolling an acknowledged problem for many and the cost-of-living crisis forcing us to cut down on entertainment bundles, simplification will be an emerging priority. Will we see progress towards the One App idea Elon Musk is suggesting he might try to build out of Twitter (based on the super-dominant Chinese WeChat)? Unlikely, but the conversations will be worth watching.

Transparency – the secret weapon in the fight for truth

Honesty is probably the main prerequisite for rebuilding a broken relationship. For a news media industry challenged by misinformation and undermined by attacks from anti-media politicians, tools and approaches that enable greater transparency seem likely to become more important.

Interest in media provenance, the embedding of signals in media that prove its source and integrity, based on initiatives like the Coalition for Content Provenance and Authenticity, will continue to grow under the auspices of a widening consortia of users. With media provenance, not only can you prove where a piece of content came from, you could also show exactly how it gets made. This type of thing is even more important in the age of generative media, which offers new routes to creating compelling fake content and saturating platforms with AI generated images.

Newsrooms are also taking a more forensic approach to their craft, not only using data more effectively but talking more openly about how content and editorial decisions are made. The hope, of course, is that this will lead to greater trust in information from established sources.

Big tech ramps up preparations as regulations come into effect

Technology and social media regulation has had a few early flowerings but 2023 appears to be the year it will start to bloom. In the UK, the Online Safety Bill will make its way through parliament, holding tech companies responsible for users’ safety – although its full implementation is still a while off. Alongside this, the CMA is undertaking a market investigation into cloud gaming and mobile browsers while alliances form around early work on interoperability in the emerging ‘metaverse’ space – offering up complex new dilemmas that regulators will eventually need to address. Also in the competition space, a new Bill on digital competition will look to take on anticompetitive behaviour by tech giants. In the EU the Digital Services Act (DSA) and Digital Markets Act (DMA) are going to be codified into law in 2024. DCMS recently produced a paper last year on a pro-innovation approach to regulating AI that, if done properly, could result in greater transparency and innovation while protecting public trust. We have entered a new era of tech regulation. For some, this is too little, too late and the world has already moved on (and to be fair to those people, in many ways that’s true). There are bound to be bumps in the road as the legislation is enforced, and it will certainly be imperfect. But if we do it right, sound, clever regulation could act as a spur for innovation, allowing it to take place in an established framework and with rules that are codified.