The rules of virtual reality are still being established, but here’s an easy one: Don’t use human disasters as a way to show off features of your VR product.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and head of social VR Rachel Rubin decided to show off one of the “really neat” features of Facebook Spaces, the company’s social virtual-reality platform, and used a 360-degree video shot by NPR of the storm-ravaged nation of Puerto Rico as a backdrop for their VR hangout. The results were as discordant as someone slamming their elbows onto a piano.
While cars inched by on flooded bridges and men huddled drinking bottled water, Zuckerberg and Rubin floated eerily in front of them, smiling and untouched by the misery surrounding them. At one point, Zuckerberg enthused, in that affectless but enthusiastic tone he’s adopted since getting media training: “One of the things that’s really magical about virtual reality is you can get the feeling you’re really in a place.”
Much of Puerto Rico remains without running water or electricity, and dozens (and more likely hundreds) of people are dead. Zuckerberg’s video begins with a shot of him and Rubin sitting on top of a sunny rooftop at Facebook’s campus, where they presumably have electricity and the high-speed internet needed to get Facebook Spaces to work.
Zuckerberg has a history of “eating his own dog food” as the Silicon Valley term goes, using new Facebook products and his own celebrity to boost the signal for fledgling products. He forced his obviously uncomfortable co-workers into his office for a Facebook Live chat back in 2016, and later did a one-on-one Facebook Live where a user asked if Mark could “give me the Zucc.” (Zuckerberg seemed unaware of the meme-ish double entendre going on.)
Look: Almost no one is good at using Facebook. You’re not really meant to be able to be good at it! It’s meant for you to create engaging News Feed content that draws in your friends, sucks up personal data, and allows for advertisers to target your demographic. It’s one of the reasons there are so few individual “Facebook stars” — while pages about topics might become large, individual personalities rarely do. People get huge on other platforms like YouTube or Twitch, and perhaps later use Facebook as a promotional tool, but rarely does someone become famous purely through posting primarily to Facebook.
But even by those low standards, the CEO of Facebook (and, presumably, the team of PR people surrounding him during most of his waking moments) are extraordinarily bad at using Facebook.
Facebook has done some admirable charity work in Puerto Rico, and the video is, viewed in a generous light, in just very poor taste. (In a less generous light, it’s a weird tech demo done as disaster tourism.) But Zuck and his PR team should have just done with the second Facebook Spaces video he posted that day — he, Rubin, and a digital avatar of his dog Beast floating in outer space. It’s bland, inoffensive, and set in an environment that’s more suited to be shown off in Facebook Spaces — and for Zuck’s, uh, unique brand of showmanship.