Are we doing any good?

image of a cathedralOne of my favorite essays published in our book is Matte Scheinker’s, called Are we building a better Internet?.

I asked Matte to write about ethics because it was a burning topic for the book and one that he and I used to kick around a bit as an oft-neglected issue in web design and development.

There are tradeoffs in customer acquisition, in growing a network, in handling privacy concerns and the related disclosures, some of which we are seeing at play right now in the controversial launch of Google Buzz, that we both felt do not always get the attention they deserve.

And yet when I speak about ethical issues and the inevitable conflicts between values and business goals and community interests and individual rights, I find that there is a hunger for seriously considering these topics. We all sense that we are “playing with people’s lives” in this work and that it matters how we do it.

Matte has a great way of easing into the trickiest questions:

Imagine for a moment what today’s design decisions will do to mold the Internet’s future. What if every product decision you made last week became a successful design meme? Would that create an Internet where you’d want your kids to play?

Sometimes we get lucky and it’s not difficult to discern the difference between right and wrong. Don’t sell user data because you’re short on beer money. Don’t keep emailing users after they unsubscribe. Don’t read user emails to find the next great stock pick. These are certainly over-simplified dilemmas, and sadly, most ethical dilemmas aren’t as clear-cut.

… but you’ll want to read the whole thing™.

(Bit by bit we are making sure all the essays are available online, either hosted on their authors’ blogs or personal websites or in some cases included in the project’s wiki, where we’re maintaining a list of essays.)

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One Response to “Are we doing any good?”

  1. Are we building better tomorrows? Says:

    […] Via Christian Crumlish, I discovered the excellent essay Are we building a better Internet? by Matte Scheinker. Matte’s essay looks at how seemingly small design decisions can have huge impacts on the way that the internet evolves. He says: The first design meme I encountered with true deleterious power was the opt-out check-box for marketing emails on sign-up forms. Our argument for it to be opt-in instead was user-experience focused with a nod to the business folks. Undesired emails would hurt the brand, annoy the user, and not necessarily generate qualified leads. What we didn’t consider back then was how that small decision would help create today’s Internet. These undesired marketing emails — along with the invention of V1@gra — contributed to the cacophony of commercial noise that now pollutes the Internet. As far as I know, this noise hasn’t killed anyone. Yet most of us would prefer the Internet to feel a little more like relaxing on a secluded beach with a good book and less like Times Square on a muggy Saturday night. […]

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