Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Nobody wants to give you an iPad. Not even Southwest Air.

A few weeks back, a story crossed through my social network feeds. Ostensibly from Southwest Airlines, it seemed to be a giveaway to take five people to Disney World. All that needed to happen was clicking "like" and you'd be entered. Within a short time, several of my connections had passed the information forward or commented while giving their "like" status.

Initially skeptical, I followed the link back to the sponsoring page. It was for "Southwest Airlines." including that little suspicious period at the end. It also had only 2,000 people who liked the page - rather a small number considering it's arguably the most popular airline in the United States. The official Southwest page has almost four million likes.

Basically, everything about it said "fake." At best, maybe it was just a time-waster or a trick to get people to see advertisements. At worst, it's malicious software or sites or a compromised account. So I set about adding a comment to each person's posting, letting them know that it wasn't a real offer. I took more-than-usual care when commenting on other's posts, knowing that lots of people don't necessarily appreciate being called out.

I was right.

At best, someone would then call attention to their friends with a post of their own. Most just didn't say anything. But one took me to task in private messages.

"Why do u have to be like that? All I wantd was to have a bit where I thought this might be happening. Do you think this makes you smart that you figured it out and i didn't?"

It was basically just the reaction I feared it would be, but for a different reason. Instead of a "how dare you make me look stupid?" reaction, it was a "I wanted to be deceived!" reaction. It should be obvious that I don't understand this point of view at all. I understand the public embarrassment one: many is the time when I avoid doing something or being somewhere simply because the risk of public embarrassment exists.

But the intentional obstinacy... that's the one I don't get. It reminds me of the fact that Kansas has no law requiring motorcycle helmets. It's often the only thing that can turn a simple spill from a fatality into a survivable accident, but yet Kansas has no helmet law for drivers older than 18. When asked, many people say it's about freedom of choice and non-totalitarian backlash and others just don't want to be told what to do (in this one particular subject).

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Leaving aside the issue of why people emphatically want the option to be deceived, I think the bigger issue is that people's critical thinking abilities are diminished in certain ways while using the internet. A while back, Facebook made a big marketing push for "friction-less sharing." It was related to a different type of information, but even the term alone is suggestive. Facebook was trying to make sharing even easier and less complicated.

Why would they bother? Because businesses have found that social recommendations are extremely powerful in comparison to traditional advertising. That's why every event and retailer pleads for you to like, follow, or +1 what they're doing.

For centuries, an advertiser's best commodity was consumer trust. If you trusted a brand, you were more likely to buy, more likely to try new things from the same manufacturer, more likely to stay loyal. But building brand trust is difficult and often not easily measurable.

The rise of social media brought a different take: consumers already have an implicit amount of trust in their friends. So if someone can be convinced to make a recommendation (or simply have it easier to recommend something), then - viola! - a trusted recommendation. So the services have a vested interest in making sure that advertisers (who pay them money) get the quickest and easiest route to more publicity.

What the easy access to sharing has ALSO created is a climate where single images expressing a platitude or point of view can move quickly through large populations. You see it in a friend's post, you agree with the sentiment, you click like (which Facebook treats as a stealth-share), and it is reposted in your feed for all of your friends to see. And like. And so on.

The sharing is frictionless, all right. It happens so fast that many people don't even bother to figure out if the scrap of information they're passing on is misleading or false. Going to Wikipedia or Snopes.com takes a lot longer than simply clicking and forgetting. Besides, would their friends lead them astray?

Not on purpose, no. But the internet (like life in general) is populated by people who want to mess with you and promote themselves. I've seen so many incorrect political facts that I no longer pay them attention unless they are SUPER EGREGIOUSLY WRONG. Then I'll take the 30 seconds to find an appropriate index page that collects all the sources saying it's wrong and post it in the comments.

What would Facebook be like if people had to verify and counter-argument all the political factoids and contest entries they put up on the internet before it would be accepted and published? It'd be a lot quieter, for a start.

That's why it's important for everyone to consciously engage your own reserves of critical thought. It will take a little effort in the beginning, but soon enough it becomes automatic, in the way that it is now automatic for us to not open any email promising money for working at home or losing pounds a day without changing your eating habits.


  1. You don't open emails promising money for working at home? What about emails that promise to increase the size of your penis? (ps - I noticed your viola.)

    1. I don't open emails about subjects I don't trust, don't want, or don't need. (I thought about the viola while I was writing this and that prompted the post about it. :D )