Manipulate Machines, Not People

The technology industry used to be full of magicians. Magicians who created amazing things. The original Mac, Nintendo NES, color printers, modems, the Internet, Doom, Mosaic, iPod, Nintendo Wii, Kinect. I can clearly remember the first time I used every one of these and the excitement I felt at seeing what its creators had accomplished. In every case, they were absolute experts in the art of manipulating machines to perform this magic.

Nowadays, the magic is gone. Instead of being experts at mainpulating machines, many companies are focused on manipulating people. In most cases, their own customers. Can I get a user a to create an account? Can I get them to fill out a profile of personal information? Can I get them to email their friends a link to my site? Can I get them to login every single day? Can I get them to let me know everytime I go somewhere? Can I get them to click on the ads I show them? Can I get them to buy things after clicking on the ad?

These are the problems that an entire generation of companies spend their days trying to solve. These problems are very different from those faced by teams trying to fit a GUI operating system in 128k or connect computers via a phone line. These are not “technology” problems, these are “media” problems. Sure they use new terms like funnels, engagement metrics, conversions and click-throughs, but when you strip away the buzzwords we’re in the 1950’s trying to create a TV show that appeals to housewives so we can show them ads for Tide.

This is the same technology industry that continues to call for the “disruption” of other industries steeped with expertise in customer manipulation (credit cards, lending, traditional media) while many of its stars are trading on their ability to convince/cajole/hoodwink users into creating “content” that contains information marketers find valuable. All so that information can be used to convince the user to buy something most likely completely unrelated to the company’s “product”.

The downside to this model is it that the company’s and user’s interests can never be aligned because the user is not the one paying for the product. Contrast this with a company like Apple who generates billions in revenue selling directly to consumers. The iPhone doesn’t come pre-installed with ad-ware from your phone carrier and your iPod doesn’t interrupt your songs every 5 minutes with a Living Social ad. Despite the fact that these tactics could generate more revenue for Apple, they are dismissed because they would make their customer like the product less. This is the same reason Facebook won’t start collecting and storing less personal data, even though their users may enjoy it, their customers would like the product less. Instead, they will use their considerable technical prowess to determine more and more effective ways of manipulating their users to generate additional revenue.

I wonder what a company like Facebook could build if it could treat its users as customers instead of products. What would a Facebook devoid of advertising and not intent on collecting as much marketing information as possible look like? Could they streamline the site so people wouldn’t need to spend as much time each day to keep up with their friends?  Would customer satisfaction increase? Would they get even more users?  Unfortunately, we will never know.

We will continue to have the choice between working on and using products that manipulate machines and those that manipulate people. Fortunately, they’re pretty easy to distinguish. Products that manipulate machines have people lining up to buy them. Products that manipulate people have companies lining up to give them away.


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  • Terry A. Davis

    God is just. That’s all you have to know.

    • Peter

      What does this have to do with anything? This is a nonsense comment.

      Anyway, great article, and I also remember feeling the excitement at first using the products mentioned.

      • Mike

        There are so many humorless people on the Internet.

  • raymondtraylor

    I’ve been thinking about this concept and you said it perfectly! I’ve been so disappointed in Google for this very reason. I wish they would focus on their product. This is the nature of publicly traded companies, aside from Apple I guess.

    Perhaps I’m ignorant but I can’t understand why Facebook can’t charge $5 per year per user (about he amount they are generating from ads). If you gave me a choice to pay for you to NOT sell my data, I would pay.

    • John Standerfer

      I’ve had the same thought – Facebook could create a premium account that promises to not store/sell your data, removes your ads and provides you access to tools to make it more efficient to use. Maybe once they’re public they’ll consider something similar.

      • raymondtraylor

        Let’s hope but I don’t think Facebook will create a premium account especially after going public because the market loves growth. When you charge customers, the revenue is measurable, not hype. The possibility (inevitability?) of Facebook knowing everything about you and selling that information would be much more valuable to marketers (in theory) than what customers would pay.

        John, I wish we had a solution.

  • raymondtraylor

    What’s hilarious is I formed my opinion from you with your “Facebook’s most important product – YOU” post from September. Please John blog more often.

  • Will

    I think imagining a facebook devoid of advertising is imagining a world without it, as users/consumers would probably not want to pay for the facebook “product” and instead use another free social networking medium. It’s easy to appeal to consumers when all you’re offering is a quality product, but buying an iPod is different than buying facebook use.

    Also while this phenomenon is widespread it’s unfair to peg an entire industry; not all companies saturate their product with advertising or “use” their users. Companies like Dell are known, for example, to include proprietary software in their “factory-state” of Windows but other manufacturers keep their OS clean.

    This post discusses an important concept. Being aware of the way companies “use” us will hopefully cause a natural selection for products devoid of superfluous ad-ons and thus a propensity for companies to produce them.

  • backgroundchecksusa

    You seem like a good writer. however there are no pictures or variation in the style of text so I only skimmed the post. I have the same bad habit often times, when I write.

    it would be nicer to just manipulate machines, I agagree

  • Jonas

    Agree completely. Great post.