“The Internet, with companies sniping at one another and blithely ignoring major privacy violations, is on the verge of the same fate as the true-blue American industries before it: losing its sense of fun.”
Bilton is on to something interesting, but thinking about the issue in terms of “fun” is the wrong way to frame it.
I’m not sure the industries he mentioned, such as airlines or cars, were ever really known for being fun in their early days. I mean, Henry Ford wasn’t known for his ability to generate yuks and smiles. If anything, the notion of the assembly process he championed was uber dull, breaking each task down into its simplest stage and stamping out lots of cars all the same color. Pretty drab.
Okay, that’s not really the main issue. Bilton frets over this sense that companies like Google and Apple have lost their sense of joy because they’re doing all sorts of un-fun things like pilfering users’ data behind their back. While he doesn’t mention the, I would throw Facebook into this pile as well.
He cites plenty of anecdotes that are all valid. But they point me toward another thought.
Rather than “fun,” the issue seems to be that these actions are evidence that these companies have shifted away from being focused on the user first, the bottom line second.
Now, I’m not naive. We all know these companies are for-profit and are in the game, ultimately, to make money.
Yet the way they went about that originally, seemed to be built around being obsessively focused on the users’ experience. Apple, famously, has its human-centered approach to design that spurned things like focus groups and market research. Google was so worried about the purity of its search experience, it vowed to always be neutral in search results and left its homepage ad-free, a move that probably has left billions of dollars on the table.
And even Facebook, especially in its early years, reportedly turned down big ad deals because founder Mark Zuckerberg worried that they would undermine the user experience. Now there is a creeping feeling that, with the IPO looming, the company is launching all sorts of changes like “branded pages” and “social ads” that threaten to gum up out newsfeeds with pitches for soap.
The problem, then, given the examples Bilton cites, is that there is growing evidence that these companies are making decisions aimed their bottom line first. Again, no one’s kidding themselves that these companies were charities.
But in making this philosophical and strategic shift, if that is indeed what is happening, the companies are possibly abandoning the basic formula that has made the successful. At its heart, that formula held that by focusing first on the user, the business would take care of itself because users would be passionate adopters of the products or services. And that passion, would in term, make those customers the best possible ambassadors of the service.
By doing things that appear to be aimed at increasing profits first, the companies risk breaking that virtuous cycle. If customers start to feel like, well, just customers, then their loyalty will slowly fade. They become a little bit more leery of the company’s intentions when it comes to new products or features are rolled out.
It’s not something that happens all at once. Now, obviously, from a financial standpoint, all three companies are still going gangbusters. If there is an impact, it will be more like a slow, almost imperceptible decline.
I think all these companies genuinely wrestle this this tension, and it’s not too late for any of them to make a course correction. Because here’s the thing about Silicon Valley. We want love our gadgets and services. That love often goes to those companies that make us feel like they’re putting our needs above the desire to make a quick buck.
The danger for Facebook, Google, and Apple is that by appearing to chose the buck first over love, they risk losing both over the long term.