For a couple of years now, I’ve had one foot in the door of the VR enthusiast community. It’s gradually dawned on me that this might not be the most responsible position at this point in time. Here’s why I’m making a change.
Let’s not bury this deep in the post: I think Facebook is bad for virtual reality, and I’m past the point of just trying to enjoy their products without thinking too hard about it.
I’m usually not Big Public Stance Guy, but I probably join most people in believing Facebook is doing more harm than good in the world. Anyone familiar with the site knows about my recent struggle with Facebook when my account was hacked as I slept which resulted in a total lockout from my only VR headset. I suspected this was the kind of thing many tech-minded folks were already concerned about, but I sincerely had no idea the shitstorm it was going to kick off around social media, message boards, news sites, and no doubt, places I haven’t even seen yet. A frequent criticism was “that’s what you get for trusting Facebook,” and while it was easy to deflect the notion as a freelance writer and content creator who felt an obligation to know what’s going on, I eventually had to ask myself how much exposure I want to give the platform at all.
If anything, I’m guilty of playing softball in some interviews about Facebook issues in the name of keeping things light and amicable. The quotes won’t be hard to find. The best I can say is I recognize it, I don’t think that’s good enough anymore, and I want to do better if I’m going to do anything at all.
I did end up interacting with a high-ranking Facebook exec while I was locked out. He was nothing but friendly and did start the process that led to restoration of my account and even the funds that the hacker misappropriated from my business page. There are basically-good, human people at Facebook, but together I don’t think they’re doing enough to prevent social harm.
Since that time, this website has had steady web traffic from what certainly appears to be internal Facebook domains and sites. Is it different employees visiting some shared link to learn about what happened? Is it a security team trying to piece together the specifics? Is it Legal building a case against me? Are they simply letting me know they’re watching? Who knows. With all the recent news, I’m stunned they’d still be interested in me at all. It seems to indicate to me that they respond to loud enough voices, but they’re also slow to forget. Surely there are bigger fish to fry.
While I’m fully aware of the alternatives to Oculus hardware and what the current market share looks like, I do think we’re headed for a Facebook stranglehold on household VR. The next iteration of PlayStation VR sounds promising, but I feel the deck is stacked against it. For one thing, Microsoft and Sony still haven’t managed to get new consoles into the hands of enough players. I eventually settled for a Series S here at the house and probably won’t have a Series X or PS5 for years now. Of the players who secured a PS5, fewer will spring for new VR hardware. That’s less players to share the tech with their friends and family, and anyone who has had the fully-wireless Quest experience probably shares my hesitation to go back to a tethered experience. I’ll personally be surprised if this generation of Sony VR is much more successful than the last. I suspect the average person you bump into on the sidewalk will have never touched Sony VR in 5 years despite market share. Many gamers and non-gamers alike that I know at this point have already played around with a Quest.
That leaves me in a difficult position. I want to support any VR developer who wants to come on the podcast, or less frequently, wants to be involved in an interview article. But my content is generally for newer game developers and tech enthusiasts and gamers interested in a wide variety of content. With a slew of new “Oculus brand ambassadors” recently self-announced, I think a lot of VR developers have plenty of avenues to draw attention to their great and worthy projects. Increasingly, supporting projects released on the Quest means supporting Quest, and Oculus, and Facebook. I don’t believe supporting VR in just any capacity necessarily means supporting Facebook, but if I help get the average non-VR person interested in VR for the first time, guess what they’re most likely to buy.
A popular opinion among VR enthusiasts is that VR tech grows in spurts separated by many years, each leaving a disappointed crowd of folks who thought this was the moment VR was going to go mainstream. At this point, I’m inclined to step back with cautious optimism about virtual reality’s future and hope for a viable wireless household contender with a different logo on it. A popular tech CEO I’ve had on the podcast rightly points out that any device ready to compete at this scale is probably going to have an unpopular name on it. I fully agree, but maybe we don’t have to settle for one of the single most-hated companies on Earth. Maybe it could be a company with a legitimate interest in gaming over data collection. Maybe it won’t be an arguably serious threat to democracy. Perhaps it won’t have already committed unequalled violations of privacy and safety. Surely we can do better than this.
I’ll still make all the same content. The truth is, when my Facebook account was compromised I was barely using it, and I wasn’t truly using my Quest headset much more often. Without relying on Facebook-powered hardware, there are legitimate issues keeping me from contributing to the discourse in a meaningful way. Without a doubt, I wasn’t invested enough to put up with the harassment from both sides of the issue or even enough to participate in respectful debates about it. I experimented with the hardware and even tried my hand at making a few things. Keeping up with this, however, would require a paid staff of full-time reporters and content creators. We know Facebook is working hard on controlling their end of the discussion, right down to the content creator level. Doing the reporting that’s needed here simply exceeds my time, resources, and honestly, my interest. I’m going back to “wait and see.”
Todd Mitchell is a US Midwest-based comedy writer and game developer with bylines at Weekly Humorist, Fanbyte, Slackjaw, End of the Bench Sports, and more. He’s the author of Inside Video Game Creation, the founder of CodeWritePlay, and host of the GameDev Breakdown podcast. Follow him on Twitter @Mechatodzilla.