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With Oculus, Facebook Can Reinvent Itself — and Its Reputation

An attendee wears an Oculus Rift HD virtual reality head-mounted display at the 2014 International CES, January 9, 2014 in Las Vegas, Nevada. ROBYN BECK—AFP/Getty Images

If there's ever been an opportunity for Facebook to earn some trust back, this is it.

Facebook’s reputation for untrustworthiness came back to haunt the company this week, when it announced plans to acquire Oculus VR for $2 billion.

The reaction from Oculus fans was swift and dramatic. Devoted followers became seething critics. At least one developer has cut ties with the company, and there’s an air of unease among many others.

Basically, Oculus fans have little faith in Facebook not to ruin everything and turn virtual reality into a soulless, activity-tracking ad platform. While it’s hard to pinpoint the exact reasons for this general level of distrust, several potential reasons come to mind:

  • Facebook converts people’s “Likes” from across the web into advertisements on Facebook, so you’re constantly reminded of how your friends have become shills. It’s not as invasive as Facebook Beacon, the ad service that tracked users across the web and turned their activity into ads, but it’s almost as creepy.
  • A few years ago, the company made a big push toward sharing with everyone — not just your immediate circle of friends — as the default. Many new users unwittingly exposed their private information to the world as a result.
  • With the arrival of “Open Graph,” third-party apps were allowed to share the details of your activities automatically. This led to instances of oversharing, some of it inadvertent.
  • Core gamers are wary of Facebook for poisoning the gaming well, as it had enabled games such as Farmville to thrive on social pressure rather than solid mechanics.
  • Facebook’s site has gone through numerous, sometimes drastic redesigns, usually to emphasize some new feature that users didn’t ask for. The redesigns rarely go over well, even if users eventually embrace the new features.

These may be the kinds of things Markus “Notch” Persson, the creator of Minecraft, was getting at when he said Facebook’s motives are “too unclear and shifting.” If you view Facebook simply as a place to share photos, links and text with friends, it’s easy to eye the company’s many policy shifts and design changes with hostility.

Yet those feelings haven’t hindered Facebook’s growth. The social network now has more than 1.2 billion active users worldwide, and 1 billion users on mobile. A 2012 survey found that 59 percent of users have little to no faith in the company to keep their information private, and that only 13 percent said they trust Facebook completely — yet they continue to use the service. The reality is that Facebook is the biggest, most centralized way to stay in touch with far-flung friends and family members. Quitting Facebook is akin to withdrawing from a part of your community. Most people don’t do it.

With Oculus, Facebook will not enjoy the same gravitational pull. Virtual reality is young, and there’s lots of competition. And right now, virtual reality’s most vocal supporters are angry at Oculus and Facebook. Granted, they represent a fraction of what is still just a niche community, but they’re the ones who will evangelize virtual reality over the next few years.

That’s a problem for Facebook, but it’s also an opportunity.

After announcing the acquisition, Oculus inventor Palmer Luckey made a lot of promises about the company’s future. He promised that users won’t have to sign into Facebook to develop or play Oculus games, and said Oculus will not spy on users or splash ads in their faces. He pledged to invest more in indie development and stay in close contact with the community. And he said that Oculus development will remain open, so games won’t have to live inside a walled garden.

The response from former fans, on pretty much every Reddit post and comment section, was the same: We don’t believe you.

It’s simply impossible for Oculus’ critics to consider that Facebook would do anything but violate their privacy, their freedom and their trust. They won’t be swayed by any amount of words from Luckey or Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Maybe what they need is action.

Let’s just consider the possibility that all of Luckey’s promises come to fruition — that five years from now, the Oculus gaming product will still support open development, will not require Facebook logins and will still abstain from Facebook’s advertising practices. That might help restore people’s trust in Facebook, but it would only be a start.

The bigger opportunity — and the hardest decisions — will come later, when Facebook looks beyond gaming and into broader applications. Zuckerberg sees virtual reality as the next communications platform — the next step in feeling closer and more connected to people who are geographically far away. In that sense, Facebook’s bet on virtual reality is an attempt to reinvent itself.

So here’s Facebook’s big chance: As the company invents new ways to communicate, it can continue its culture of sharing by default and turning friends into walking banner ads. Or, it can come up with new ways to make money that no one’s thought of yet, and that are altogether less creepy and intrusive than the Facebook of today. Virtual reality is as clean a slate as Facebook’s going to get.

The hate that Oculus and Facebook are getting today isn’t all that significant. What really matters is whether we can look back in five or 10 years at the dawn of virtual reality and say that Facebook didn’t screw it up.

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