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‘So...What Really Did Happen With Palmer [Luckey]’

‘So...What Really Did Happen With Palmer [Luckey]’

A book out next week tells the story of the founding of Oculus VR based on hundreds of interviews across several years.

I read an early version of the Harper Collins book by Console Wars author Blake Harris. We’ve decided to refrain reporting certain elements of the book until we verify information, or until we read the finished edition which arrives February 19.

The draft I read, however, is an intimate portrait of Palmer Luckey, Nate Mitchell, Brendan Iribe and other key members of the Oculus founding team. They assembled in 2012 to realize consumer VR and just two years later were acquired by Facebook for $3 billion. Written in a “narrative non-fiction” style, the final section of The History Of The Future follows the path Luckey took after September 2016, when a Daily Beast article tied him to “secretly funding Trump’s meme machine.” It ends after Luckey’s departure from Facebook in March 2017.

Though we broke news of Luckey’s exit, Facebook representatives wouldn’t say at the time whether the departure was voluntary. Instead, they said he’d be “dearly missed.” Luckey was also quiet on the subject despite lasting questions surrounding the misleading public statement he issued.

In April 2018, Senator Ted Cruz asked Facbook CEO Mark Zuckerberg about it:

Late last year the Wall Street Journal reported Luckey “was put on leave, then fired.”

From the Wall Street Journal:

“Internal Facebook emails suggest the matter was discussed at the highest levels of the company. In the fall of 2016, as unhappiness over the donation simmered, Facebook executives including Mr. Zuckerberg pressured Mr. Luckey to publicly voice support for libertarian candidate Gary Johnson, despite Mr. Luckey’s yearslong support of Mr. Trump, according to people familiar with the conversations and internal emails viewed by The Wall Street Journal.”

VP of VR/AR at Facebook Andrew “Boz” Bosworth published on his Twitter the statement “we did not pressure him to say something untrue.”

I’ve reached out over direct message to Oculus co-founders Nate Mitchell and Brendan Iribe in hopes of understanding what happened in Luckey’s final months at the company. Iribe has not responded to my messages. I also reached out to Luckey, who responded but declined to comment publicly until the book’s release. I received the following statement over email attributed by Facebook PR to Mitchell, Head of VR Product:

It’s certainly surreal to see such a huge part of our lives turned into a few hundred pages. The book’s dramatization of our history is not always consistent with what happened, and some of the stories are definitely not reflective of our real relationships. That said, what I hope people take away is the spirit of Oculus: we lived, dreamed, and breathed VR. We worked to build something that would make the community proud, and it wasn’t easy nor without mistakes. VR has always been much bigger than just Oculus, and I’m looking forward to what this community builds together in the next 10 year chapter.

Harris sent an email late last week circulating with Facebook employees working on the VR and AR teams. I read the email, which is included at the bottom of this post, and based on my reading of Harris’ book and that email, I originally put the following questions to Facebook:

  • Did Facebook representatives give false information to Blake Harris in characterizing certain aspects of Palmer Luckey’s last eight months at Facebook?
  • Did Mark Zuckerberg (or anyone above Luckey in the reporting structure) have any input, prior to publication, on the content of Luckey’s misleading public statement?

Responses I received from Facebook do not answer those questions. Instead, I received statements which rephrase earlier positions expressed through Bosworth.

“We told Palmer that any mention of politics and who he’s voting for was up to him,” one recent statement reads.

Prior to the Mitchell statement a Facebook spokesperson wrote in a message  “The book doesn’t get everything right,” without providing a specific example.

Below is Harris’ email to Facebook VR/AR employees. I’ve removed Harris’ personal contact information from the email but it is otherwise presented verbatim:

Dear Intrepid Oculus and/or Facebook Employee,

By design, this email is going out to a combination of people I know and people I don’t. It is my hope, however, that this message and/or the chapter attached finds its way to anyone who might find the details relevant…

In fact, I should probably begin by introducing myself: I’m the author of a book called Console Wars (which came out in 2014) and I’ve spent the last few years conducting hundreds of interviews and doing extensive research for a book about Oculus/Facebook (which comes out later this month). And as some of you may also know: for 2+ years of that time, I did so with the support of Oculus/Facebook.

In April 2018, however, my access came to an abrupt halt. I’ll get to why below, but I wanted to first address some of the talking points that I know certain managers have already started deploying to describe me and my work: [For those of you short on time, I’ve put some of the most salient points in BLUE]

1) “We’re very curious to see how accurate it ends up being once we have a copy.” 

Facebook has had a copy of my book since early January. And not only have numerous people already read through it, but select employees have already received reports about content that pertains to them.

2) “We’ve heard from some folks that the book will focus heavily on (sometimes manufactured) drama, particularly around Palmer.” 

The book is primarily a founding story, so—unsurprisingly—there is a lot about Palmer Luckey in the first third of the book. And—given how much effort went in to suppressing the details of his final months at Facebook—there is a lot of Palmer Luckey in the final third of the book.

But the suggestion that I “manufactured” drama is as silly as it is false. Because the truth is that—much to the chagrin of my publisher!—I turned in my finished manuscript two years late (and twice as long as expected) because I had too much drama to work with. Between the unusual origins of Oculus, the unlikely resurrection of virtual reality and the unexpected multi-billion-dollar acquisition (followed by an even more unexpected multi-billion-dollar lawsuit), I had an embarrassment of riches to work with. And in the end, my most difficult challenge was paring things down, not making things up!

Not only that, but in the course of my researching this book, I managed to obtain thousands upon thousands of archival documents. Emails, text messages, internal memos, etc. In fact, I found so much of this material to be so engaging that—as often as wouldn’t disrupt flow—I directly inserted these emails/messages/memos into the book verbatim.

That said, as with any book, all my research does not guarantee 100% accuracy. In fact, part of the reason I wanted to write this email is to let employees know that if they end up reading my book and discover any factual (or even contextual) errors, I absolutely welcome their feedback. It will be embarrassing for me, of course, to learn that after so much work I still may have missed a few things; but at the end of the day I care way more about the integrity of this book than me ego so please, if you see something that looks inaccurate, flag it for my attention so that I may further research the situation and make any necessary changes for further editions of the book.

For example, the 39th chapter of the book (entitled “Lockdown”) deals with the behind-the-scenes drama that stemmed from the differing views of Oculus leadership and Mark Zuckerberg with regards to the openness of Oculus’s platform. Even though that chapter alone is based on hundreds of emails and numerous interviews about the situation, it has been brought to my attention that the conclusion of that chapter (i.e. the resolution that led to allowing “Unknown Sources” to run on the platform) does not match with the recollection of all those involved. So that is something that I will be further researching and, if change is warranted, I’ll note this (along with any others) on my website so that it’ll be properly disclosed until an official revision can be made in the next edition of my book.

Typically, to minimize potential inaccuracies, I try to share in advance portions of my work with those that the work is about. This, of course, bestows them with no editorial power, but it does provide a chance to catch possible errors so that I may do further research/fact-check prior to publication. And—as with every piece of non-fiction that I’ve ever written—it was my plan to do the same here. But that plan came to an end in April 2018, when Facebook instructed their employees to cease “any and all contact” with me. Which I’ll explain in more detail here…

3) “We worked with Blake early on, but we stopped when he broke trust with us more than once”

Historically, when a journalist is said to have “broken trust,” it means that they either outed anonymous sources, or they published off-the-record information. That, however, is not at all the case here. I am pleased to say that nowhere in my book does it include any information that was obtained off-the-record; nor does any of the content threaten to out the identities of the many, many sources who shared critical details and/or documents with me.

So what then, here, is meant by “broke trust with us”? Easy: “broke trust” is a euphemism for “wouldn’t print what we wanted.” And the reason why I wouldn’t print what Facebook wanted (and what was being told me to me from a variety of sources [several of whom rank high enough to officially speak on behalf of the company) was because many of the things that I was being told turned out to be untrue—particularly with regards to the termination of Palmer Luckey, and his final six months at the company. 

To be clear: this was not a “he said, she said” situation; if for no other reason than the fact that Palmer was legally prohibited from talking to anyone about what had happened, so I didn’t even have a “she said” side of the story. Instead, what I had were firsthand archival documents that contradicted so much of what I was being told. 

I’ll spare naming the sources of the quotes below, but here is just a small sampling of what I was told: 

  • “We don’t discuss personnel issues” [which, of course, would soon be followed by “on background” discussions about personnel issues]
  • “Palmer didn’t follow proper protocols” [which, I would later learn, directly contradicts the results of the internal investigation that concluded in November 2016]
  • “I don’t even know if he supports Trump” [said by people who, in the months prior to the 2016 election, had directly asked Palmer if he supported Trump and were told “yes”]
  • [re: why, if Palmer supported Trump, he would then write a statement alleging plans to  vote for Gary Johnson] “This was all his call. That was his idea.”
  • “Obviously, we can confirm that he did write that statement. That was his statement. It was his idea.”
  • [re: the days, weeks and months after The Daily Beast article in September 2016] “It wasn’t like he just disappeared and never came back.”
  • “It wasn’t as though [this were] Soviet Russia, where he just disappeared one day”
  • “He chose to go on leave” [No, he did not]
  • “He continued making internal posts during that time” [No, he did not]
  • “And then ultimately, he decided it was time to move on” [I mean…come on! The guy wanted to remain at Oculus so badly that he literally offered to continue working there for free]

Now the question you’re probably wondering: why would high-level executives and otherwise generally smart people think that such obvious lies would make it to print? For a comprehensive answer, you’d have to ask them, but my suspicion would be that its due to a combination of the following:

  • They believed that if enough people told me the same lies over a long enough period of time then I’d have no choice but to believe and/or print what I was told.
  • They believed that since Palmer (and a handful of others) were blocked from speaking with me, then I’d receive minimal pushback to a false narrative.
  • In certain high-profile media situations—like when Mark Zuckerberg appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair—Facebook negotiates with journalists ahead of time to have approval over which quotes may be printed, and it is possible they assumed that such an agreement had been struck here.  
  • My narrative non-fiction writing style—which, by the design, does not directly source the information—made for the perfect opportunity to launder lies to the general public.

In fact, with regards to that last point, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that what ultimately triggered the dissolution of my access to Oculus/Facebook employees was my sharing a draft of a chapter written outside of my typical style. Within days of my sharing that chapter (which was essentially a straight-forward transcript-style Q&A), I was told by numerous employees that they had been barred from speaking with me.

That was very disappointing for me, but fortunately—by this point in the process—I had obtained more than enough information to capably tell this story. And though I am certain that my book is not without flaws (remember: if you see any, tell me!), I am incredibly proud of the work that I have done.

It is a great privilege to be the custodian of other people’s life stories, and—to me—it is also a great responsibility. For that reason, I wanted to write this email and let all of you know that if you have any questions, suggestions, or just want to shoot the shit about some of your experiences, I will always make myself available.

Thank you for your time, and for the great work you do with a technology I care deeply about.


P.S. Over the past two years, the number one question I’ve gotten asked by Oculus folks is “So…what really did happen with Palmer” In hopes of finally providing some of the answers that you’ve long-long-deserved, I’ve attached one of the chapters from towards the end of my book.

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