Silicon Valley Needs to be More Careful

Silicon Valley is in what seems to be a never ending cycle of commiting some shortsighted blunder and making lame apologies. Two notable and recent examples are Twitter verifying Nazis and Google Maps converting walking calories into cupcakes earned.

Charlie Warzel discussed this phenomena for Buzzfeed News:

Since summer’s end, Silicon Valley’s biggest tech companies have been embroiled in an endless series of missteps and mini scandals.

. . .

Viewed separately, each of these missteps could be seen as reasonably small but unfortunate errors. All were remedied and apologized for fairly quickly. Each one has its own explanation that, in the right context, feels at least somewhat understandable.

. . .

Baked into the frustration surrounding these gaffes is a sense that Silicon Valley’s biggest companies are incapable of the necessary introspection to see themselves the way their critics might.

“The issue here is that the platform creators are hobbled in their ability to see beyond their own best intentions,” former White House chief digital officer and Silicon Valley veteran Jason Goldman told BuzzFeed News after the Facebook VR debacle. “There's a preexisting bias toward ‘we're doing good.’ . . . "

Best intentions. That's how this is always framed. It's always about their intentions more than the outcome. They claim they won't allow the harmful outcome to happen again. They assert their good intentions. They call the problem solved. And then there's inevitably another blunder. Twitter, Google, Facebook, Uber, Apple. All of these companies do this to varying degrees. They're apologies aren't working.

Let's look at Google and their cupcakes as an example. Google's intention was to make a fun and cute new feature that contextualizes how much walking a user will do on their route; it shows you how many cupcakes it would have burned. It's a silly way to delight and reward the user. What they didn't realize what that this will trigger and shame people who struggle with eating, dieting, body image, etc. Their users and the public shone a light on this through some public outcry. Google plays the supplicant apologist: they had no idea this would be harmful; they obviously didn't intend to cause this harm; thanks to the outcry they have now learned that this can be harmful; they won't do it again. What won't they do again? How will they not do it again? That's where there's not a very good answer. Their answer is to continue to only have good intentions. But that didn't work the first time. Intend all the good you want, you're going to continue to accidentally screw up in serious ways.

Good intentions aren't enough. You must examine the set of conditions that allowed your best intentions to be circumvented. Silicon Valley needs to be more careful.

This pattern of behavior and the accompanying lack of appropriate change from Silicon Valley is forming frustration and bitterness amongst users. We feel this cycle of unfulfilled promises and it is slowly compounding into a real problem. I have overall fairly negative opinions of Silicon Valley companies beause of this. When will these companies learn? How long will we be stuck in this cycle? It's the users who end up shouldering the burden of identifying and reporting these problems. We're performig labor for these companies. That's not how the company-product-customer relationship is supposed to work.

The ideal relationship with a company-product-customer relationship is this: The customer provides revenue (preferably directly and not through advertising), they are allowed to use and benefit from the utility and enjoyment of the product, the company uses the revenue to iteravely change their product over time to make it better and better.

No part of that relationship should involve me doing labor for the company. I am a customer, not an employee. If the users of your product continue to shoulder this burden, eventually their experience using your product will feel like work. It's the company's responsibility to make sure that the changes they make to their products are good, that they are free of unintended consequences, that they aren't manipulatable, exploitable, or harmful. The company needs to evaluate their decisions beyond what their intentions are.

This is hard. It takes tons of work. It takes incredible amounts of time and money. It takes diversity of all kinds to provide all possible perspectives on a problem. It takes lots of effort and lots of care.

When users complain about the latest instance Twitter's harassment problems or Facebook's privacy blindness, we're not just asking the company to avoid making that exact singular mistake again. The deeper need we're expressing is for these companies to be more careful. Put in the hard and compliated work of understanding and evaluating your product and users enough to not create these negative unintended consequences in the first place.

"Move fast and break things" was once the motto for Facebook and it described the general ethos of Silicon Valley as a whole. This mode of operating doesn't serve anyone well. It says that if you can come up with any possible business justification for your idea, then just go for it and see what happens. Figure it out on the fly, and if it makes money or (more importantly) gains users, even better. This is the very idea I'm advocating against. This mentality is reckless and destructive.

Be more careful. That doesn't mean you need to be overly cautious or timid or tip toe your way around being seen as offensive. It means be careful. Take care in your product. Focused, intentional, active care for your creations. Your products should be precious to you and should deserve to be looked after with love, stewardship, and care.