Rooting For The Little Guy

Facebook, you probably have one, you may even use it every day. You probably kinda hate it too. Don’t feel too bad, you’re just like everyone else on Facebook. Remember when we were excited about social media? Now it has become a basic utility we use to keep in touch with each other. Nobody is excited about Facebook, just like nobody is excited about the power company.

What is it that keeps us using it then? Thumbing through our news feeds with glazed eyes and a sort of blasé attitude? Is it the dopamine release you get from seeing a new post? Is it that little squirt inside your brain’s reward center when you check a notification, only to find out that it was so-and-so’s birthday for 12 hours today and actually you just don’t care? Why are you Friends with him anyway? Randomized schedule, randomized rewards. It’s the definition of a Skinner box.

Or maybe we really do just like staying connected to people. Even if in a strange and ethereal way, maybe it’s totally good natured friendliness. If it is, you have to admit that rummaging through dozens of personal pictures of all your friends would’ve sounded pretty creepy about a decade ago. Now it’s an afternoon’s leisure activity. They posted those pictures expecting you to look at them. It’s a strange mixture of desperation and honesty.

On top of all this mostly harmless but potentially creepy windowing into our personal lives and thoughts, Facebook is building an empire. They are logging all those status updates, geotagging your pictures, and using facial recognition to find you in others. They are mining through your “private” messages to friends to find keywords that might, just might, suggest that you’d be the type of person who likes to “Eat Fresh.” You may know this, you may have come to accept it, but I guarantee that you have friends, real life people you care about, that are oblivious that they are being spied on by Facebook. Or that anyone, anywhere, can read their posts if they know their name, including the government.

“So how did it get this way?” An outside observer might ask. “Who would ever choose this dystopian nightmare?”

We were never really given that choice exactly. It happened through a long process of accretion, like water wearing away a boulder. The argument was never “Do I want a Facebook that spies on me and sells my identity or no Facebook at all,” it instead became “well, Facebook with ads is better than paying for Facebook, I guess,” and, “well, Facebook with targeted ads is better than Facebook with more ads, I guess.” If you make the damage smaller and dose it out over time, it becomes easier to accept. Frog in the pot with the heat slowly turned up. You stick around instead of running because there’s no shock.

So why does this matter? Why care? I mean, it’s just Facebook. Don’t use it if you don’t like it. (Full disclosure: I do have a Facebook, bear with me) Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Facebook has a profile for you, even if you aren’t a member. They are gathering data on you from wherever they can get it. Shadow profiles. Once you come, you can never leave, they keep your profile information indefinitely on their servers.

So all this seems pretty creepy, not exactly a “Friend” you’d want to hang around with, you know, virtually. Related or not to the creepy factor, they have been bleeding users in the past several years, particularly young ones. They’re moving on to Twitter or whatever the Next Big Thing is. So this puts Facebook, a company in the business of owning your online identity, in a bit of a bind.

The natural thing for a large company to do at this point is to start “diversifying their portfolio.” Or buying up smaller companies in order to broaden their income base. Thus far, Facebook has primarily been buying up other social media platforms. More or less trying to just own the Next Big Thing before it becomes even bigger than Facebook. It’s like MySpace buying Facebook while it still required a .edu email address.

So far that seems to have worked out fairly well for them. After two years, you still wouldn’t know Instagram was a part of Facebook unless someone told you. (I didn’t) And the strategy of not micromanaging has allowed it to continue to grow slowly. But the management style may change with time. In fact, they announced recently that they will be replacing foursquare integration in Instagram with Facebook Places, their in-house solution. So perhaps it has already changed.

All this has somehow lead up to a $2bn acquisition of Oculus. That’s right, Facebook, a company which makes a product which your Mom probably uses every day, is acquiring a hardware company. Not only that, but one that is currently targeting hardcore gamers who want to feel completely immersed in a video game. Don’t see the pattern here? Most people don’t, and Facebook’s stock dipped accordingly.

As with Instagram, Facebook has made the bargain with fans of Oculus that “they won’t change a thing.” And that’s great for VR, but probably not so great for Oculus. Because although I believe them, it’s only to a point. They won’t change anything as long as they believe that they can’t improve their profits by doing so.

Oculus is going to be huge. VR is going to be huge. There’s no avoiding it. It’s a revolution in the way that we consume media, and it has the potential to change the way we think of “reality.” And Facebook is ready to ride this wave to the top. They will be building their version of the Metaverse, the virtual world inside the real one, where we keep in touch with our old friends and loved ones.

But even though VR will stick around forever, Oculus will not continue growing forever. They will slow down. It is the nature of business to grow until the market is filled. But Facebook is a publicly traded company which answers to many disinterested investors. These people want a return on their investment, they want year-over-year growth. If the percentage growth goes down from last year, they want to know why.

Of course this is preposterous, as maintaining a solid percentage growth every year is an exponential curve, and nothing can grow exponentially forever. This is why markets bust and bubbles form. People are terrible at estimating complex non-linear equations. It’s just not something we’ve had to be good at, evolutionarily speaking. So they make bets on the future of businesses expecting the trend of the moment to continue longer than it will.

So once Oculus plateaus, or begins to plateau, or looks like it might possibly maybe be thinking about plateauing, the squeeze is on from the investors. This is the point at which Facebook gets involved in Oculus. This is when we get blue Facebook branded headsets with the “thumbs up” on it. This is when you have to implicitly sign an invasive EULA just to open the box.

This seems to be the major concern of many of Oculus’s fans, that Facebook is going to ruin Oculus. That they will need a Facebook account in order log into Oculus Share. That games will require advertisements overlaid on top of them.

This is not my concern however. That will all be happening a while after VR is officially “a thing.” So if you’re worried about that, please stop.

My concern is for my own self. My own moral integrity. It shows a lot about who you are as a person or a company by who you choose to partner with. And Facebook, regardless of how they are “planning on ruining Oculus” or not, is a company that has shown a willingness to be deceitful towards it’s users if it’s in Facebook’s best interest. They are not, in my opinion, a company that has shown moral fiber. And now Oculus is associated with them.

So what does that look like? A company with moral fiber? Sadly, there aren’t a whole lot of big ones. It seems that when companies reach a certain size, they are seduced by the Dark Side, so to speak. But a few that come to mind from the gaming space are RAD Game Tools, Mojang, and until now, Oculus.

So what has changed at Oculus when they insist so deeply that “nothing has changed?” They have chosen to associate themselves with what I would consider an immoral company. And not just in a superficial way, they are literally part of that company now. Facebook and Oculus will forever be synonymous. So if I don’t trust Facebook, I don’t trust Oculus.

So why do I care? Why do I feel betrayed? Because I believed in Oculus. I thought of it like a group of friends, not just another company, even though that’s really all it was. I should’ve known better really. After they accepted Venture Capitalist money, the writing was really already on the wall. VCs are always looking for a quick buck, a ROI, a buyout.

I ordered a Developer Kit with big plans on making content and helping Oculus “change the world.” Now, I don’t want to help Facebook change anything, certainly not the world. I’d rather they just rot into the dust and go away than reshape the world in their image.

The thought of a company with shaky morals putting it’s weight behind the most significant technological and social revolution since the internet kinda turns my stomach. So it’s scary.

It was nice rooting for the little guy for a while. It was nice feeling able to trust a company like Oculus who was changing the world. Now they are part of something bigger, something scarier, and I don’t trust it one bit.

So the question is, what am I supposed to do about it? I still have my DK2 on order, but I am not sure why. I don’t know that I feel comfortable actually developing anything with it. That makes me just a consumer buying a product, and as Palmer and Nate so earnestly pleaded, “Consumers shouldn’t buy DK2, we don’t want consumers to buy DK2.”

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