Recently, I’ve been working on a big research project. Yesterday, I had Delicious links, PDFs, spreadsheets and Word documents open on my desktop when I came across a couple of useful presentations on Scribd.
I’ll have them, I thought. So I clicked. What happened next surprised me: I was given the choice of logging in via Scribd or Facebook.
Facebook? Why should I sign into Mark Zuckerberg’s site to download a presentation written by someone else and made available from somewhere else? Although the invitation was optional, it still felt like a kind of category error. This was Facebook pushing its nose too far into someone else’s business.
Specifically, my business. I felt jostled, hustled and nudged. (It actually is much worse, as Wired.com’s Priya Ganapati discovered.)
Nudging is the name given by the authors Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein to describe the art of influencing user behavior by presenting options in specific ways. When they nudge us, businesses and government erect what Thaler and Sunstein call an architecture of choice around us.
Last month, TechCrunch spotted a good example. This was Facebook’s decision to allow users to respond to a would-be friend by pressing a button entitled “Not Now”.
Previously, Facebook forced users to choose between Confirm and Ignore. The change, Techcrunch suggested, was all about creating a de facto “follow” feature that doesn’t depend on the followed party giving permission. This, TechCrunch suggested, was an attempt by Facebook to “slyly beef up its social graph a bit more”.
So what? Surely, nudging (not to mention “choice architecture”) has been around forever. What’s wrong with using a series of barely noticeable prompts and temptations to maximize revenues in the short term?
Nothing. On the ad-funded web, it’s essential that users behave in a way that’s lucrative. Sometimes, they need encouragement. If you’re providing an expensive service for free, it’s surely not outrageous to treat users as sheep, funneling them toward the point at which they yield their maximum value.
Or is it? Perhaps the really important thing about nudging is the frequency with which it’s done, and the way in which the nudging is presented.
Some companies do it less than others. Although I suspect it adopts a tougher stance with business customers, Google has remained a reluctant nudger in consumer markets. If you’re a fan, you probably believe that this is because the company goes with the grain, striving to do no evil. If you’re a skeptic, you’ll argue that Google’s approach to its users is made possible by a cash-generative advertising business. Either way, the interpretation is largely positive.
Aggressive nudging causes problems. As corporate self-interest becomes more important than user satisfaction, the nudging company’s approach to consumers becomes fragmented and incoherent.
Something like this, I suspect, happened to Windows during the past decade as Microsoft struggled to cope with the emergence of the web. The company’s vast promotional campaigns for Windows tended to focus as much on the company’s achievements as the benefits conferred upon users. The self-regarding nature of these campaigns told us something about the company’s attenuated links with its customers.
It’s time, I suspect, to ask a similar question about Facebook. Does Mark Zuckerberg understand that his company’s future increasingly depends not so much on its ability to churn out killer code, but on its ability to treat users right?
People aren’t stupid. Users who care about these things know what to expect from a company that has altered its privacy policies to suit itself on multiple occasions during the past five years. A few months ago, the Electronic Frontier Foundation asked its readers to coin neologisms for “the act of creating deliberately confusing jargon and user-interfaces which trick your users”. Here’s a selection of what came back: “Zuckermining”, “Infozuckering”, “Zuckerpunch”, “Facebooking”, “Facebaiting” and “Facebunk”.
Facebook’s combination of cynicism and success makes the company intriguing. It also makes Mark Zuckerberg vulnerable to the same fear that used to haunt Bill Gates. There’s a possibility that these criticisms might enter the mainstream, damaging the business in a serious way.
At the moment, this is something of a concern for Facebook. The company is at sixes and sevens, trying to deal with the release of The Social Network, a Hollywood flick written by Aaron Sorkin that loosely chronicles Zuckerberg’s career as a prodigy at Harvard (2002-2004). The film isn’t complimentary to Zuckerberg, and the founder of Facebook says he doesn’t plan to watch it.
Zuckerberg’s advisers have been running a very traditional PR campaign against the film. At opposite extremes, this has involved a 6,000-word profile of Zuckerberg in The New Yorker and an appearance on Oprah.
A curious melancholy infests the New Yorker’s profile. You wonder, for example, to what extent Zuckerberg actually possesses an interior life of his own. He doesn’t seem passionate about much in particular. At the age of 26, he bought a car but only after asking his friends for suggestions (he wanted something “safe, comfortable, not ostentatious” and ended up with an Acura TSX, which Wikipedia defines as “an entry-level luxury car”). According to the author, Jose Antonio Vargas, Zuckerberg simply looks away and says “Yeah, yeah” when he is not interested in what someone is talking about.
If anything, The New Yorker’s profile seems to confirm what The Social Network suggests. As screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, the film’s director, puts it, Zuckerberg was one of a group of “socially dysfunctional people who created the world’s great social-networking site”.
It’s a satisfying conceit. But looking ahead, there’s surely more drama to come. Nudging is a risky business. Each nudge extracts an invisible price in terms of customer loyalty. The risks only increase with size. Empathy becomes important.
Bill Gates could sell software, but he found empathizing with customers impossible. At Google, Sergey and Larry hired Eric Schmidt to do their empathizing for them. On speaking platforms around the world, Schmidt delivers handsomely on his remit, fluently discussing the trade-offs required by the web, society and democracy. He makes Google sound like a company that won’t nudge you more than is strictly necessary.
Does Mark Zuckerberg understand what’s at stake? You have to wonder. On privacy, he tells The New Yorker: “We realize that people will probably criticize us for this for a long time, but we just believe that this is the right thing to do.”
Translation: I’m going to pay zero attention to my critics. The chippy, self-pitying, heroism will be all too familiar to anyone who ever listened to Bill Gates during the late 1990s.
With an attitude like this, it’s possible to build a company that’s successful. But it will be nigh-on impossible for Mark Zuckerberg to build a company that’s great.
Every two weeks media expert Peter Kirwan writes The Great Transition for Wired — a column about how the media industry is evolving in the 21st century.
Photo: Publicity still from ‘The Social Network’