We need to do our part

This is a follow-up, or unofficial part 2 if you will, to my earlier post – We must do better before it’s too late.

Even if you haven’t watched the movie The Social Dilemma, which I would highly recommend by the way, you know that users are being exploited on the internet. It’s no secret that social media, news, and many other types of websites and mobile apps make money selling their users’ data. If we know this, why do we keep giving it to them?

Yes, the website owners, app developers, and software engineers bear a lot of the responsibility, but it’s not all their fault. We, as users, bear a lot of the responsibility by enabling them. So long as we are willing to trade our data for “free” software, the owners and producers will continue exploiting us for their gain. It’s like a person addicted to smoking blaming the cigarette makers for their poor health. Yes, the cigarette makers are responsible. But, if one knows smoking is bad for you, why would one keep doing it?

Giving away our data and engaging in questionable online behaviors are bad for us. It’s time for us to “just say no” and change our internet and overall software habits.

How are websites bad for us?

Well, Smashing Magazine published a great article recently showing how our well-being is affected by the tactics websites use to capture our attention. There were three main areas highlighted. Feel free to nod in polite agreement to yourself if you’ve seen or fallen victim to any of these tactics online:

  1. Playing into alert panic with fake notifications
    So many websites these days use red notification badges, pop-ups, and distracting animations to grab our attention. For example, when you see the red dot above an item with a number in it, you are trained to click because it must mean there is a notification that needs your attention. Unfortunately websites exploit this habit to get us to click on things that are not vitally important to our well-being. This is a problem, as pointed out in the Smashing Mag article, because “the signals in your brain that cause anxiety are going to continue to dominate and you’re going to continue feeling uncomfortable until you take care of them.” In other words, these tactics cause us to experience unnecessary anxiety.
  2. Deceiving customers with dishonest photos
    Photos of happy people, staged product positioning, altering images to make things look better than they appear. It’s a tried and true marketing gimmick that websites have adopted and overused. This excerpt from the Smashing Mag article shows why this is harmful – “…when we internally believe that what we see in social media is true and relevant to us, we are more likely to compare ourselves to it in an internal effort to evaluate ourselves against those around us (e.g., regarding our looks, wealth, significant other, family, etc.). As we do this against the idealized images and unreasonably positive life accounts that tend to permeate social media, we are likely to feel more poorly about ourselves and our lives.”
  3. Bombarding us with addictive content
    The scrolling newsfeed, pop-ups, ads designed to look like real content, these are all methods that sites use to keep us engaged and logged in. The algorithms that determine what content is delivered to us are designed to show us that which will keep us on the site longer. The longer we stay, the more money the sites make. The problem is that we tend to pay more attention to negative news and outlandish behaviors, so the algorithms are trained to tap into our natural emotional responses. It provides fertile ground for sources of misinformation and “news” items that serve to polarize us more than bring us together.

The problem

The root of the problem is that the website users aren’t the website’s customers. The customers are the advertisers that want to benefit from your data. Therefore, the goal of a website isn’t to please the users of the site. It’s to do just enough to keep users engaged, to keep users spending their attention, to keep them giving away their data. Their primary focus is how to gather more data and package it attractively for their advertisers to consume.

The result

The outcome is mediocre software. How many of our websites and applications are frustrating, confusing, and hard to use. As Seth Godin pointed out in his article, Our software must get better, there are three factors holding back the quality of software these days:

  1. Once software crosses a certain line of success, lock-in kicks in. It costs users too much time and effort to switch software, so the producer of the software (or website) have little or no incentive to improve it.
  2. Software tends to grow and get more complex as its success grows. The larger and more complicated the software, the lower the ability and desire of the owner to improve it. The safer approach is leaving well enough alone, especially when the user doesn’t have a viable alternative.
  3. Above all, and perhaps most importantly, consumers expect software to be free.

Seth’s article is a great read – brief and to the point. He lists great examples of extremely popular software that is mediocre at best such as iTunes, the Mac address book, and the stamps.com interface. In each of these cases, there is a better alternative that struggles competing against user lock-in and the lure of “free” software.

Change – it’s up to us, the users

If we, as users of the internet, want to break the exploitation loop, then we need to take responsibility for our actions. We need to recognize how social media, application developers, and media companies are exploiting us for their gain. We need to take actions to show we don’t like their tactics.

For starters, instead of accepting the packaging and sale of our data, the abuse of our privacy, as a cost of doing business, we need to stand up for ourselves. Simply stop using these sites. Send a message that you are not going tolerate being used for their gain.

To prevent lock-in demand data portability. You should have the right to export your data from a service, in a format that is friendly meaning it can be moved to another service or piece of software. After all, it’s your data, you should be able to do what you want with it, including the transfer of it if you so desire.

Demand privacy by refusing to agree to usage terms and privacy policies that allow companies to package and sell your data. I get that these legal documents can be hard to interpret, but that should be your first sign of trouble when signing up for a service. If they need to hide behind a 50-page legal document full of arcane legal terms, then they’re most likely trying to do something to exploit either you or your data.

Get familiar with your browser security and privacy settings. Use it to block ads and pop-ups, and turn on settings that restrict cookies, particularly those created by third parties.

Finally, for those companies who aren’t out there taking advantage of us, we need to support them. Those companies who have chosen the high road, who are doing their best to offer a valuable service without selling out their users, they need to be paid for their efforts. Their business model requires that we pay them for the use of their work. Yes, it will cost you in the short-term, but the long-term benefits are well worth it. Years ago I decided to start paying for services I use that have free alternatives. Software such as Feedly, Evernote, and Runkeeper. I’m not even sure what the paid subscription offers over the free version, but I wanted to offer my support to help these companies stay afloat and improve their product, without selling me out to 3rd parties.

Yes, the website and developers need to step up and take responsibility, but we as users share some of the blame. Working together, doing the right thing, we can make a difference, which should make both the internet and the software we use better for all of us. After all, if it’s bad for the hive, it’s bad for the bee.