Zuckerberg apologises for misjudging the mood with cartoon VR tour of Puerto Rico
This piece has been updated with Zuckerberg’s reaction to the criticism – scroll to the bottom of the piece to see it.
Look, I’m not an elected politician or a prominent public figure, so maybe I’m missing something, but it doesn’t seem beyond the wit of man to discuss disaster-hit regions without doing anything insensitive. And yet right off the back of the president jokingly chiding Puerto Rico for throwing “our budget out of whack”, Mark Zuckerberg – Facebook’s CEO and 100% non-politician – has starred in an astonishingly poorly judged livestream. In the video, cartoon avatars of himself and the company’s head of virtual reality, Rachel Franklin, take a jaunt to Puerto Rico for a bit of disaster sightseeing and promotion of the Oculus Rift.
The whole video is embedded below. The relevant section is from 2:05 to 6:10.
I should start by saying there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with using virtual reality to deliver hard hitting news stories – though as Tom wrote back in 2015, it needs to be handled sensitively and can be an ethical minefield. Zuckerberg and Franklin stride enthusiastically across said minefield with no qualms whatsoever, throwing themselves straight into an NPR video of the disaster recovery.
Facebook Spaces is a strange beast at the best of times: simultaneously technologically impressive, but thoroughly underwhelming. The cartoony avatars may work well enough for virtual attendance of the birthday party of someone you don’t like very much, but for visiting a disaster area it’s completely unsettling. “We’re on a bridge here, it’s flooded” says Zuckerberg rotating his bobble head avatar around to take it all in. “It’s crazy to feel like you’re in the middle of it,” says Franklin. Yes. “Crazy.” That’s exactly the word I’d use.
That’s a bad start, but things get worse when it becomes clear that the video is only partly about raising Puerto Rico up the agenda. The rest is evenly divided between boasting of what Facebook has done to help out, and showing off how cool virtual reality can be. The most cringeworthy point is when Zuckerberg excitedly points out that he and Franklin are not even in the same building. “It feels like we’re in the same place, we can make eye contact,” says Zuckerberg. “Yeah, we can high-five,” responds Franklin.
I mean, yes, you could high-five, but you’re not going to high-five in front of a flooded crossroad, are you?
Awkward high-five done, Zuckerberg launches into the things that Facebook has done: safety check, community help, raising money, etc. All very worthy. “But on top of that, we also did a bunch of work ourselves in terms of sending Facebook employees down to Puerto Rico to help with connectivity.”
Some, however, just sent their avatar.
To be clear, these initiatives are good and important, especially the one Zuckerberg went on to announce: population maps, which will help the Red Cross identify where people are that need help. But crucially they’re important enough not the be used as part of an infomercial for Oculus Rift, where two grinning avatars high five in front of scenes of total devastation. It’s hard to believe that you could be so in awe of your own product that you’d miss that emotional disconnect of using the break up of people’s lives as a prop to self-promote.
“Alright, you want to teleport somewhere else?” asks Zuckerberg, having exhausted things to point out in Puerto Rico. “Yeah, maybe back to California,” Franklin laughs.
And with that, they reappear at the stage of Facebook’s OC4 event, ready to promote something else. “Let’s get rid of this transport orb,” says Zuckerberg, popping the Puerto Rico video from existence, successfully putting the troubled territory out of sight and out of mind once again.
Update: It appears that in the cold light of day, outside of the VR headset, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has realised that having a cartoon version of yourself galivanting around a disaster zone might appear a little disrespectful.
“One of the most powerful features of VR is empathy,” Zuckerberg responded below the original video in a comment. “My goal here was to show how VR can raise awareness and help us see what’s happening in different parts of the world. I also wanted to share the news of our partnership with the Red Cross to help with the recovery. Reading some of the comments, I realize this wasn’t clear, and I’m sorry to anyone this offended.”
A little later, Zuckerberg responded with a slightly more nuanced response: “When you’re in VR yourself, the surroundings feel quite real. But that sense of empathy doesn’t extend well to people watching you as a virtual character on a 2D screen. That’s something we’ll need to work on over time.”
Hidden away in the video and the response though is something really quite telling. If VR is fantastic for empathising with others, then how do you find yourself in a situation where you high five a colleague when surrounded by signs of people’s lives in tatters? If anything, surely this suggests that VR isn’t quite the magic bullet for emotive experiences that people are often keen to paint it as.