Unethical social design

I am “following” who? My “friend” uploaded a music collection? What on earth is going on?!

When I was taught social and online community design at grad school, we spoke about what users liked and felt comfortable with and what users did not like. You know: sign-ups, privacy, and feedback and incentives, etc. Probably the most uncomfortable topic was on intellectual property. But with the rise of social web start-ups fighting for a handful of seconds of user attention today, I believe that there is a need to develop and advocate the importance of ethics around social experiences. Why? Because I believe that companies like Quora and Spotify are engaging in what I call “unethical social design”, and this warrants a need for an intervention from wise people.

If you are signed up to Quora or Spotify, aren’t you sick of all those hundreds of notifications (in-app and email push) about how everyone you know in your real life is following you and how they are now a part of the network? Well, guess what, each of those friends of yours gets similar notifications when you move an inch. But wait – how did these services know who my friends were and decide to “follow” them without me actually choosing to? Oops – that damn Facebook connect button that was compulsory on sign-up!

You see, as web-based B2C entrepreneurs, we are being taught everyday how social networks are a great place to bring thousands of users into our apps easily, and leverage an amazingly powerful graph which we cannot possibly create organically. These have gone from being suggestions to becoming the new mandates and market development mantras. But unfortunately, this tip doesn’t come with a handbook of rules – and companies like Quora and Spotify are abusing the newly discovered power. They are the culprits of the powers granted to the creators of the social web.

It is okay to spam. Yes, it is. At least a little bit. Email is probably the most effective means to secure retention of your user base. But the point where this social design trick turns unethical is when the services starts making decisions about the users preferences without asking them. Sensibly, “follow”ing another user ought to be the result of an intent expression by a user. Building a social network in such an unethical manner is not just an act of timidness, it also means that the foundations of these networks are weak.

I am sure there is a setting where can users can change this default behaviour of following Facebook friends, after getting sick of this. But by hiding it from the user experience from sign-up through engagement, prior to the user realizing what is going on, is wrong. The reason I would demand for the introduction of ethics into social design is because not all users hate this – in fact, this could very well become their incentive to be engaged in the network, but as I misquote Steve Jobs, “users don’t know what they want”.


Ps. I am really fond of Quora’s vision and most of its functionality. I have even visited them in Mountain View, CA. And Spotify also does a tremendous job of figuring out a great pricing model around music content, along with nice user experience. And that is why I care to write about this in the first place.

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