Virtual Zuck fails to connect

Mark Zuckerberg in VR in Puerto Rico Image copyright Facebook

It must have seemed like a good idea. As a taster for a big announcement about Oculus VR on Wednesday, send Mark Zuckerberg on a little virtual reality trip, including a stop in Puerto Rico.

But the reviews are in - and they are not good.

The sight of Mr Zuckerberg using VR to survey the devastation of an island still struggling to recover from Hurricane Maria may have been meant to convey Facebook's empathy with the victims.

The fact that he was there in the form of a cartoon seemed to many the perfect visual metaphor for the gulf in understanding between Silicon Valley and the real world.

Sure, he was talking about all the activities which his company had initiated to help the island, from helping people tell their families they were ok using Safety Check to sending Facebook employees to help restore connectivity.

But cartoon Zuck showing us a 360 degree view of a flooded street before zipping back to a virtual California just seemed a little, well, crass. Is Facebook really concerned about the plight of Puerto Rico, or is it merely a handy backdrop to promote Oculus, whose sales have so far proved disappointing?

Politics and the public

It is not the first time the young tycoon has misread the public mood. Back in November following the US elections, he said it was "crazy" to suggest that fake news on Facebook had played any part in deciding the results.

Since then, as ever more detail has emerged about Russian use of his platform to try to influence voters, Zuckerberg has been on a journey towards understanding and acknowledging the power he has.

He's also been on a literal journey, with a mission to visit every US state this year. As he's been pictured at the dinner table with farmers in the mid-west or mused about religion, revealing he is no longer an atheist, some have seen another motive behind this odyssey. Could this be preparation for Zuckerberg 2020, a run at the White House?

Meanwhile, back at Mountain View headquarters problems are piling up in the CEO's in-tray, with politicians from left and right asking tricky questions.

Is he doing enough to stop terrorists using WhatsApp? Did Facebook promote fake news around the Las Vegas shootings? Is billionaire Peter Thiel, with his connections to the alt-right, a fit and proper person to serve on Facebook's board?

Like many a tech leader, Mark Zuckerberg has assumed that what is good for his company is good for the world, but now the world is not so sure.

As I was writing this, a reminder popped up on Facebook of a day in 2008 when I interviewed its founder during a trip to London.

Back then he seemed impossibly young, not very articulate - but very focused on building his business and ignoring the sceptics who kept telling him to sell up before the bubble burst.

Since then his vision of a company connecting the world has come true, and his business brain has out-thought all of his rivals and detractors. It's his political brain which still needs a bit of work.

Maybe it is time to retire the cartoon Zuckerberg and for the real one to spend a little more time out of the spotlight, reflecting on the impact his immensely powerful empire has on our lives.

UPDATE 20:25

Mark Zuckerberg has obviously been taken aback by the reaction to his virtual reality visit to Puerto Rico. He has posted this on Facebook in response to negative comments below his original post and video.

"One of the most powerful features of VR is empathy. 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."

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