For all the good Facebook has done in the wake of Hurricane Maria, CEO Mark Zuckerberg sending his cartoon avatar to the ravaged streets of Puerto Rico on Monday afternoon stands out as a tone-deaf misstep. He capitalized on a natural disaster to promote his company’s new tech, and the whole thing just felt … awkward.
Zuck sent his curly-haired, smiling avatar on a virtual journey to the suffering territory with Rachel Rubin Franklin, the leader of Facebook’s social reality team, courtesy of a 360-degree video created by NPR.
Zuckerberg and Franklin’s cartoon avatars floated along observing floods and destruction as Zuckerberg waxed poetic about the “magical” quality of virtual reality.
They even shared an awkward high five in front of flooded homes while laughing about how they were using the Facebook Spaces tech from different locales.
Twitter and some viewers commenting on the Live video on Facebook were quick to ask an important question…WTF?
Why is virtual Mark Zuckerberg going on a virtual tour of Puerto Rico?
— DarkSkintDostoyevsky (@daniecal) October 9, 2017
Mark Zuckerberg talks about the dire situation in Puerto Rico as an AR toon.
“Crazy to feel like we’re in the middle of it.”
End me. pic.twitter.com/a7mOoCIlHC
— ‘Ween Park 🎃👻 (@GenePark) October 9, 2017
“Crazy to feel like you’re in the middle of it”, says virtual person with virtual Mark Zuckerberg as he shows photo of Puerto Rico flood pic.twitter.com/N5VzidGU9Y
— Steve Kopack (@SteveKopack) October 9, 2017
The juxtaposition of Zuckerberg’s avatar bobbing around hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico was indeed weird, but seeing him try to transition to the next stop on his virtual tour was even more cringeworthy.
After an awkward exchange about how the duo felt like they were really in Puerto Rico, filled with uncomfortable pauses and Zuck grabbing the virtual camera to show viewers the “completely flooded” street, the Facebook founder asks his coworker if she wants to “teleport” somewhere else.
“Maybe back to California?” Franklin said with a nervous laugh, and soon the two were on their way to San Jose to stand on stage at last year’s Oculus Connect 3 VR conference.
Despite this bizarre virtual trip to Puerto Rico, Facebook has carried out important disaster relief to help the devastated island. About 15% of residents are still without power and only about 19% of the territory’s cellphone towers are working, according to a government website tracking outages, even three weeks after Hurricane Maria made landfall.
Facebook has donated $1.5 million for Puerto Rico relief through World Food Program and Net Hope. The company has also sent employees to help with Puerto Rico’s connectivity issues and has partnered with the Red Cross to use an artificial intelligence program to build population maps, in order to locate communities in need of assistance.
Perhaps Zuck’s intention with this Facebook Live was to bring a spotlight to Puerto Rico, but plopping VR cartoons into a disaster zone and peppering the conversation with nervous laughter just feels ignorant.