About that Mark Zuckerberg Puerto Rico video. In just a few minutes, one of the world’s richest tech founders illustrated two important things:
1. The reason he should never run for president (no, we’re not about to talk politics, I’m sure you get enough of that elsewhere).
2. A hint a why VR is having such a difficult time connecting with the mainstream.
But before we explain those two points, let’s imagine a different scenario. Imagine a young 16 year old teenager from Puerto Rico standing in his apartment in my old neighborhood of the East Village (historically, one of the largest communities of Puerto Rican people in the U.S.).
After briefly explaining the details and impacts of the recent natural disaster in Puerto Rico, as well as expressing his concern for his own extended family members still living there, he then reaches down off-camera and picks up an Oculus VR headset and asks the viewers to please join him to take a look at the devastation in Puerto Rico that is, in my opinion, being grossly under covered in U.S. media.
The next five minutes are all about this young Puerto Rican teen showing viewers an immersive and otherwise impossibly intimate view of the devastation in Puerto Rico, after which he then offers details on how the viewers can donate to various organizations working to help the local community there. It’s hard to think that anyone would have asked that kid to apologize for taking us on that brief, virtual journey.
So now let’s talk about the reactions to the Zuckerberg version of that video.
Zuckerberg is neither poor, nor, for various reasons, able to directly relate to many of the people being impacted in Puerto Rico.
From his billionaire perch in Silicon Valley Zuckerberg is often ridiculed for his attempts to connect with the “common folk.” This is neither odd nor particularly mean, it’s just how things are when you’re a billionaire and as powerful as Zuckerberg. No matter how sincere his verbiage to the contrary, no one is really ready to believe that a young billionaire from Silicon Valley can truly relate to the economic struggles in Puerto Rico or the challenges currently being faced by families both in Puerto Rico and by extended family members in mainland United States. The derision being directed his way is the same derision he gets for his America tour, where he hops down and gets his elbows dirty with the regular folk in middle America cities.
Aside from widespread suspicions that these seemingly altruistic acts are either branding efforts to soften the image of Facebook in the wake of its connection to a damaging political season, or, even more fantastical, that the tour is just his test run for a potential presidential candidacy, the real issue here is likability. Zuckerberg may be 100% sincere in his outreach efforts on all fronts, but what we’re learning is that people just don’t believe that those efforts are sincere. Whether they’re right or wrong, people aren’t buying it. That’s why, when Zuckerberg shows up to take us on a tour of weather-ravaged Puerto Rico in VR, the first thought isn’t, “Oh wow, the traditional news media isn’t showing me this, I’m glad Zuckerberg took time to show us this in VR, it looks like Puerto Rico needs more help, what can I do to contribute to its recovery?” No, the only thing people see is a billionaire playing with his toys.
And maybe they’re right. Maybe this is just a super rich tech mogul showing off how his toys work. Or maybe it’s Zuckerberg attempting to use his celebrity to boost the fortunes of Oculus, a company he has spent billions on that has yet to yield any meaningful hit product on the scale of hits as we know them in the mainstream consumer tech market. No one can know for sure except Zuckerberg himself, and those closest to him.
Personally, while I think any of the aforementioned are possible, I do my best to try to believe the best in people, so for now I’m going to believe that the true “tone deaf” misstep regarding this VR fiasco is due to the fact that a very sincerely concerned and genuinely-trying-to-help Zuckerberg didn’t realize that he was exactly the wrong messenger for this particularly sensitive message. Yes, we live in an age of transparency, in an age where CEOs are expected to be the main interface of their company. But too often CEOs don’t realize that not everyone has the ability to transmit the magic of their products in the same way that Steve Jobs was able to. You may be brilliant. You may have the ability to create brilliant products. But you can’t teach charisma, public-facing empathy, and a genuine connection to people.
The other problem with that video has to do with its target. I plan to get into this in detail soon, but here’s a preview… What I’ve learned over the last few years as high-end VR has gone from development kit to being available on the shelves of Best Buy is that high-end VR is not yet a product for 100% of the mainstream. It’s not a product for 70% of the mainstream. In fact, it’s not even a product for 50% of the mainstream. Yet. This is due to hard to control factors including cost, environmental factors (try using an Oculus Rift or HTC Vive in the middle of the summer in an apartment that isn’t blasting frigid air conditioner wind all around you), and, most importantly, leisure time. Like early and very expensive personal computers in the ‘80s, VR is for a very specific kind of customer with a very specific economic profile.
So while people like Zuckerberg and others attempt to use the frequently rolled out phrase of the “empathy engine” that describes the ability of VR to help you relate to the situations of others by immersing you in their environments, the fact is, what you’re essentially doing is hopping in a Ferrari, driving around poor neighborhoods (virtually), and then telling everyone (of all economic profiles) why they should love and want a Ferrari and do their best to buy one if at all possible. That’s what’s effectively going on here. When you see it from that angle, it does come off as pretty offensive to have a super rich tech mogul seemingly promoting his Ferrari by using a disaster struck area as his selling tool.
As I mentioned, I have a larger, more detailed post where I’ll explain further the mistakes being made with regard to marketing high-end VR, but for now, that’s the long and short of it.
It’s worth noting that during the VR video Zuckerberg made a point of saying that NPR (National Public Radio) shot the 360 video. But notice that NPR didn’t get slammed for being a part of Zuckerberg’s presentation. And it’s great that Zuckerberg highlighted the fact that his company is collaborating with the Red Cross to provide aid to Puerto Rico. But none of that changes the fact that this was poorly executed and missed a major opportunity to correctly show off the amazing wonders of VR in the right way.
For comparison, consider the fact that the founder of SpaceX and Tesla, Elon Musk, isn’t making videos from his office, instead keys sacrificing Company resources to directly provide aid to Puerto Rico. What could Zuckerberg have done better? A number of things. But let’s just consider the aforementioned scenario that would have worked a lot better.
A better video would have been hosted by the hypothetical teen I mentioned before. In that hypothetical video, at the end of the presentation, the teen takes off his VR headset to reveal that he’s actually already in Puerto Rico helping his extended family members recover from the disaster. The lesson here for Zuckerberg is: Don’t just ‘talk’ about the “empathy engine” of VR, “understand” the empathy engine. “Be” the empathy engine.
Hopefully, someone on his team was able to relay the subtleties of this to him, thus helping him avoid such a PR nightmare in the future.