Marking 20 years of "creative good" writing, as Facebook fades
Sep 17, 2018

This month marks 20 years of my writing the Creative Good email newsletter (after starting this blog in '97). I've seen a lot along the way: boom & bust cycles, buzzwords, trends and fads, so many things that have risen up and faded away. But along the way, the internet has permanently changed the world. For better and, more recently, worse.

Throughout, I've tried to maintain the "creative good" ideal, the belief in products that do good, in platforms that actually treat users with basic human respect, in services that actually benefit people in the long run. I've tried to show how it actually does work, if companies create good experiences, rather than exploiting people for short-term gain.

Recently it's been a tough idea to hold onto. The rise of Big Tech and its business model of surveillance, manipulation, and monopoly - undergirded by techno-chauvinist arrogance - have brought about some disappointing outcomes, to put it lightly. And until recently, it hasn't shown signs of fading away.

I've been wondering: where does it go from here? Is there still a place for people who think systemically about creating good experiences? I don't mean designing an interface to more easily, say, share a toxic post on social media. I mean designing products that people actually want, and can gain value from - see Customers Included - rather than tricking them into psychological addiction loops.

But things do seem to be changing, a bit. For example, this appeared on Twitter a few days ago:

"Facebook is starting to feel like those last few years of Blockbuster." -Mark Normand

Ahh, late-stage Blockbuster. I remember it well from the late 90s. In those days, everyone rented movies from Blockbuster not because they liked it, but because it was the only option (beyond the odd indie rental place, and most were odd, in a good way). The company was fueled by punitive late fees: you had to bring back your movie in two days, or else. The experience was disappointing, if not outright hostile, to customers.

Then Netflix launched. Those little red envelopes started arriving into mailboxes everywhere, with no late fees, and in that moment, Blockbuster ceased to exist as a viable proposition. The end of Blockbuster's dominance can be traced back to one single factor: the improvement in the experience, as offered by a competitor.

Consider the parallels between Facebook today and Blockbuster in the late 1990s. Just about everyone uses Facebook today - not because they like it, but because it's the only way they know how to keep up with friends and family.

And yet, most people can sense that something about Facebook is a bit "off." Every week brings new revelations that the company has deceived its users - or enabled others to do so - for financial gain. Meantime, Zuckerberg and Sandberg have repeatedly been called to Congress to apologize.

Consider recent Facebook news:

Pew Research just reported that over a quarter of American adults 18 and over have deleted the Facebook app from their smartphone in the past year. And Business Insider reported that "time spent on the social network has fallen by almost 7%."

Facebook's harmful effects around the globe are getting higher-profile media coverage. For example, read this BuzzFeed News article about Facebook's explicit and strong support of the Philippine dictator Rodrigo Duterte. Another recent piece covers the role of WhatsApp - a Facebook property - in a series of lynchings in an Indian town. And then there's Facebook news from Myanmar, Germany, and elsewhere.

Zuckerberg himself is getting more scrutiny, as in this new profile in the New Yorker, which reveals Zuck's bizarre fascination with Caesar Augustus (he named his second daughter "August" after the Roman dictator). Meantime, other celebrities in the news are swearing off any connection to Zuck's apps - like Michael Stipe announcing he's done with Instagram - which is owned, of course, by Facebook.

Calls for anti-trust action, to break up Facebook into its component parts, are gaining momentum. Here's author and Columbia professor Tim Wu writing in The Verge: It's Time To Break Up Facebook.

I'm hopeful that with time, and what I suppose will be some strong anti-trust action, Facebook will eventually fade out, or at least get regulated into some shape that is not so egregiously toxic. The larger question is, does good experience still win the day, online? Or are we stuck with Big Tech pushing for ever-more invasive and ethically compromised products, while citizens hope for anti-trust regulators to save the day?

As I begin my third decade writing this newsletter, I certainly hope it's the former. I'll continue to advocate for products and teams that create good, that include customers, and that set their sights on long-term benefits. And if you're on board, thanks for sticking with me. Onward!