Oculus and Facebook, Sitting in a Tree…
Anyone tuned into the tech or crowd funding scene has undoubtedly already heard the big news of the day: Facebook is acquiring Kickstarter success Oculus and their flagship product, the Rift VR headset. Coverage and opinions on the acquisition abound, making this perhaps the biggest news story to ever cast a light on the crowd-funding community. Since we here at Caffeineforge are champions of the institution of crowd funding, I couldn’t let this story pass by without proffering my own 2% of a dollar.
I think anyone who has even tacitly observed a Kickstarter or Indiegogo campaign knows just how high supporters’ passions can run, even with regards to smaller projects with much more modest goals than ‘revolutionize virtual reality for the masses.’ It’s no surprise then that a vocal constituency of Oculus’ backership is outspoken about this surprising development in the plucky startup’s ongoing story. And while I can hardly say that I’ve quantified the responses in any meaningful way, one needs only peruse Oculus’s comment page or some of the many Reddit threads to see that many are questioning Oculus’ motives and judgment in relinquishing control to Facebook.
Now, that I’ve spent the evening and much of the morning thinking about this development and reading various reactions, I’ve found myself experiencing a range of personal reactions that have calcified this afternoon into something I’d classify as bemusement with a healthy splash of ‘da fuq?’ on top. I’m typically a champion of the backers in cases where creators make terrible decisions, but the ways in which people are expressing themselves (see the links above for some examples) make me wish that violations of Godwin’s Law were punishable with imprisonment (or even worse, banishment from the Internet), but I digress…
Let me first state I have no illusions about Kickstarter and what participation in a campaign creates in the way of entitlements to backers. Oculus is a private company, and they have a right to sell to whomsoever they choose, regardless of their roots on Kickstarter. Later, when I started to evaluate what I would sell for $2 billion, I had to stop working on my list when I started jotting down some of my very favorite body parts. So I can’t fault anyone for losing perspective or having a lapse of judgment in the face of so very much money…
That said, what a HUGANTIC, GINORMIC, COLOSSAL lapse of judgment, Oculus (I’m talking to Oculus now, by the way…).
Facebook is not a friend of the people—they’re a business. Their motives are purely financial, and irrevocably tied to the will of their shareholders. And whatever assurances of autonomy you got, $2 billion doesn’t come no strings attached. Your game-changing device with industrial, scientific, medical, and yes, entertainment applications is now an arrow in the quiver of one of the largest advertising and marketing companies in the world. Whether or not you want to believe it, Oculus, I’m pretty sure this is the dictionary definition of selling out. You’re backers have got you there (all implications of complicity in the holocaust aside…).
So, while no, backers are not entitled to refunds, or an equity stake, or any token of appreciation above and beyond what they’ve backed for and received, they do have a right to be pretty disappointed with you. After all, Kickstarter constantly reminds backers that they’re backing creators, not products. When you brought the Rift headset to the largest crowd funding site on the web and essentially raised your first round of VC funding by appealing to ordinary people (and Notch, let’s not forget Notch) to dig deep and support your VR technology for all, they weren’t just supporting you for a devkit, or for a crappy t-shirt, or a “heartfelt thanks.” They were backing your vision—that a plucky upstart can create a disruptive technology that has far reaching implications across industries. Hell, I (and others) applauded as you got additional VC funding, seemingly bringing a consumer ready iteration of the Rift closer to reality. We thought you were growing Oculus as an independent player—a disruptive force in a technology landscape that is increasingly homogenous.
Your backers thought they were helping to build something in you. They shared your vision and took pride in it. And you sold that to fucking Facebook? Unfortunately for you, I think you’ll find that people’s unwavering support and admiration is not so easily transferable a commodity as Facebook’s billions.
To sum: I hope that you can at least understand where people’s disparagement of this deal is coming from, Oculus., even if the Internet is pretty lousy at getting it’s point across without being dicks. Part of me wants to believe that you really see this as the best, most strategic gambit to move VR forward. But another part of me suspects that you saw some serious Silicon Valley dollar signs and lost sight of the big picture. Whatever the case, that ship has sailed. End letter to Oculus.
Unfortunately, I’m not so sure that the fallout from this sad turn will be confined to Oculus. A project like Rift brings a lot of new backers into the community, who may be turned off future projects for feeling duped into helping someone else’s get rich quick(ishly) scheme. Likewise, not all press is good press: the kind of beating this deal is getting in the media, while bringing attention to Kickstarter, will undoubtedly bring some cynicism to future technology projects, where a lot of unrestrained optimism once reigned.
I hope that this move proves to be the right move for Oculus. That said, I’ll be looking at their competitors to satisfy my VR needs.