Who Controls (VR) Content: the Editor or the Platform?
On Friday afternoon I got a call from an Apple app store representative. It was about an iOS app that I had submitted two weeks ago, Ferguson Firsthand. The app uses the accelerometer inside a smartphone, together with Google Cardboard, to create a virtual reality rendering allowing viewers to move around inside a 3D environment.
My app had been rejected. In other words, censored!
The issue, as the anonymous Apple representative explained, was “the subject matter”. The aforementioned environment in question was the Canfield Green apartments complex where Michael Brown was fatally shot in August 2014. And as a result, I was told, the app “refers to a very specific event” and suffered from “too narrow scope”. She continued, “something targeted at a specific event is not appropriate”. Instead, I was recommended to “develop an app around a topic — a new topic”, she took pains to suggest — to make an app that would be “topical in general terms”. My journalist brain started to think.
Did that mean I needed to couch the Ferguson shooting in the wider context of law enforcement’s precarious relationship with the African American community? I suggested.
“We evaluate every app on its own individual merits”, my caller retorted, graciously inviting me to develop another app/story from scratch and see if that passed muster. When I pressed the person for more feedback about specific parts of the experience, I was told it had to do with “the entire concept of the app…you’d have to change it so significantly” for it to be approved. She also referred me to Apple’s app store guidelines, which are written in a jockular yet strangely ambiguous tone:
We will reject Apps for any content or behavior that we believe is over the line. What line, you ask? Well, as a Supreme Court Justice once said, “I’ll know it when I see it”. And we think that you will also know it when you cross it.
If it sounds like we’re control freaks, well, maybe it’s because we’re so committed to our users and making sure they have a quality experience with our products. Just like almost all of you are, too.
To my disbelief the person on the phone started sounding more like a newsroom editor and less like a client support representative.
This episode got me thinking about the thin line that today divides technology and journalism.
Two main issues are raised here.
1. Virtual Reality Journalistic Ethics
The first being the ethical question of the nature of virtual reality reporting, and how VR content is produced and editorialized. As I interjected during the conversation, the Oculus and desktop versions of the piece (along with accompanying methodology sections, detailing the reporting and production process) already passed a raft of journalistic checks and balances, including a mention by the Associated Press’ Editor of Ethics and Standards. Furthermore, the VR story had been published by Fusion, and featured on prestigious journalism and innovation publications including Nieman Storylab, the Reynolds Journalism Institute and Wired Magazine. If that wasn’t enough, it had been tested by hundreds of people at film festivals and conferences.
2. Democratizing Virtual Reality
The second relates to the broader issue of censorship, distribution and democratization. Leading VR headsets in the market still cost hundreds of dollars (despite becoming a decimal point or two cheaper in the last decade) and a powerful PC to run home experiences. Google cardboard, the SDK that allows journalists to port a game engine experience into VR , was designed to work brilliantly with smartphones, but in light of my phone call with Ms. Apple, almost half (44.1%, according to June 2015 data published by Comscore) of that market share in the US was effectively being cut off. As content is moving away from traditional newsroom landing pages to the untamed wilderness of social media timelines and native apps, we’re beginning to see that the distribution channels are becoming the gatekeepers to content. These giants have an important role in enabling newsrooms and journalists circulating news and information. This responsibility shouldn’t be taken lightly.
This isn’t the first time that Apple have ruled against content that news outlets have approved for publication: Pullitzer prize-winning editorial cartoonist Mark Fiore fell afoul of the app store ajudicators in 2010, when his animation app was rejected on the grounds of:
Content or materials of any kind (text, graphics, images, photographs, sounds, etc.) that in Apple’s reasonable judgment may be found objectionable, for example, materials that may be considered obscene, pornographic, or defamatory.
After public outcry, they then swiftly retracted their decision and reinstated the app, adding a new clause to the guidelines in Mark’s honour:
Professional political satirists and humorists are exempt from the ban on offensive or mean-spirited commentary.
As we ride this great wave of VR experiences, the app stores are ideal for pushing out discrete VR experiences like Furguson Firsthand, levelling the barrier to entry to smartphone ownership. It is only now that we arriving at an unfamiliar intersection, where ethical questions about this sort of content are being raised. Going forward, we should ask ourselves:
How will the identity and product agenda of those platforms impact the circulation and distribution of information — and what role should they play in the future of journalism?
Either Apple and other platform developers need to be far more transparent in their adjudication process, or they need to give rejected apps more concrete feedback — specifically, which clauses of the guidelines the apps have allegedly fallen short of. That, or they need to remove the final paragraph of the guidelines, entitled “A Living Document” (my highlights):
This document represents our best efforts to share how we review Apps submitted to the App Store, and we hope it is a helpful guide as you develop and submit your Apps. It is a living document that will evolve as we are presented with new Apps and situations, and we’ll update it periodically to reflect these changes.
Thank you for developing for iOS. Even though this document is a formidable list of what not to do, please also keep in mind the much shorter list of what you must do. Above all else, join us in trying to surprise and delight users. Show them their world in innovative ways, and let them interact with it like never before. In our experience, users really respond to polish, both in functionality and user interface. Go the extra mile. Give them more than they expect. And take them places where they have never been before. We are ready to help.
At this early stage in VR’s development, let’s not let the platform dictate the players. If we do acquiesce, what sort of VR content library are we unconsciously asking for? In my next post, I’ll look at the current VR offerings and find out if the technological revolutions we’ve been promised in this new medium correlate to an equally diverse, cosmopolitan suite of experiences for its users.
Dan Archer (@archcomix) is an immersive journalist and the founder of Empathetic Media (@empatheticmedia), a new media agency that provides virtual and augmented reality storytelling solutions to newsrooms. Drop him a line or tell him what you thought of this article at firstname.lastname@example.org.