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!

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Interested in more? Get my podcast Techtonic on WFMU, or drop me a line.

- Mark Hurst

  1. Mark,

    there is an interesting movie about the people who do the real cleaning for Facebook, it’s called “The Cleaners” and was recently shown on French-German TV channel Arte — witness the collateral damage.

    BR

    Ralph

    .

  2. Interesting timing. I just spent the weekend cleaning out drawers and closets holding a plethora of cassette tapes, VHS videos, 1 8-track tape, and even a reel-to-reel. I think the toughest part of our constantly changing technology is the investment you lose when you adapt from one to another – I had so many album$ that never became CD’s… or downloads. I miss the fun of early AOL….when you could strike up actual friendships with people around the world and talk about music and culture and glimpse what life was like across the pond.

    • So true, Brenda – a lot of the early Internet platforms at least tried to create a better experience. I hope we’ll arrive someday at a point where there are major platforms supported by business models that *don’t* rely on amplifying toxic content.

  3. Mark, thank you for the two decades of writing. I’ve been following your work for nearly all of it, and you really helped educate me when I started working at my first start up back in 00. I had no idea what I was doing and your sensible, distilled language reminded me that there is a simple logic and product design that is platform agnostic. Good messaging and good products will thrive in any market and on any platform.

    Regarding Big Tech, and this may not be a popular thought but here it goes: if we want to avoid an environment where companies like Facebook and Google leverage our data to their own ends, we may need to return to a world where companies charge for services. Big Tech has to leverage our data because, otherwise, there is no business model. There is a cost for everything being free and a lack of privacy and transparency is only part of it. Big companies who charge for services are hardly perfect (see also: Amazon) but many of them are starting to put privacy forward as a tentpole in their business strategy (Apple). I’m ready for an era where consumers have the expectation to pay, even a nominal amount (your Netflix example is a great one) for services that keep our behavior under the hood. Looking forward to another 20 years.

    • Rachel, thanks for your encouraging words, and for sticking with the newsletter for so many years! I do agree that there are some principles that remain constant no matter the business cycle or tech landscape.

      I also agree that there needs to be some sort of change in business model from the current Big Tech approach of manipulative “surveillance capitalism.” A good example is comparing Gmail (free with surveillance) versus for-pay email services like FastMail and Proton Mail (small monthly charges, and no surveillance). How can we encourage more people to break up with long-term toxic surveillance platforms, in favor of services that charge transparently?

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