Earlier this week, Mark Zuckerberg broadcast a video that drew condemnation from publications around the world. He appeared with Facebook’s head of social virtual reality, Rachel Franklin, as a pair of avatars teleporting to different places around the world using Facebook’s ‘social VR’ tool ‘Spaces’. In real life, the two were sitting on a sofa on Facebook’s campus wearing VR headsets. So far, not so bad?
However, one of the locations the two Facebook giants ‘visited’, was Puerto Rico, a Caribbean island recently devastated after Hurricane Maria. The hurricane wreaked havoc on the island, killing 45 residents and causing a level of widespread destruction and chaos paralleled by few storms in history. Almost two weeks after the storm subsided, most of Puerto Rico’s residents still lacked access to clean water and electricity.
The broadcast showed the two avatars talking to each other and floating around real-life scenes. At one point, Zuckerberg said: “One of the things that’s really magical about VR is you can get the feeling you’re really in a place”, as his smiling avatar appeared in front of devastating flood scenes. He and Rachel even high-fived each other, which seemed particularly awkward. However, the worst bit for me was Zuckerberg’s line ‘Do you want to teleport somewhere else?’ with an executive stating ‘Yeah maybe back to California?’’ which seemed particularly insensitive. Obviously the people whose homes had been ruined didn’t have that option.
Zuckerberg claimed that his goal was to show how VR can ‘raise awareness and help us see what’s happening in different parts of the world’ and has since apologised for causing any upset. There’s no reason to assume the tech giant didn’t mean well, as Facebook’s efforts to help Puerto Rico have been substantial. Perhaps he just didn’t think about how jarring the smiling cartoon avatars would look against a backdrop of devastation.
It goes without saying that companies should never use tragedies as a hook for showcasing their products. In addition, it’s important to think about the right platforms to raise awareness of particular issues. Whilst cartoonish VR is exciting and headline-grabbing, it was not the right platform to highlight Puerto Rico’s plight.