Disruption and the Danger of Dusty Ideas

A few months ago I was invited back to my alma mater, Western University, to speak at the Richard Ivey School of Business. This was the first time I spoke about epistemology and business strategy, in the context of disruption or otherwise. The talk went very well.

Facebook thinks you’re trash

Facebook thinks your friends–and by extension, you–are garbage. How else do you explain Facebook Messenger’s Chatheads?

But first, a little background.

In two very real ways, thinking is embedded in software. First and most obvious is the code.

The second way is more subtle. In software, our behaviors are constrained by the interface. We are forced to act however the interface makes us act: if you want to save, simply saying “hey computer save my document” is no good. You have to hit CTRL-S, which is kind of an arbitrary behavior, yet we do it all the time.

This is the second way thinking is embedded in software: it makes us behave in new ways. When an app has a share button that only lets you send an email, it reinforces the idea that email is the best (or only) way to share something.

So this brings us to Chatheads. What behaviors is Chatheads creating or reinforcing in us by virtue of its design?

Well, that our friends are garbage. Almost literally:

If a friend messages you, their face appears as a floating icon above whatever app you’re currently in. You tap on the icon to expand the conversation as an overlay without leaving your app, then close it and quickly return to what you’re doing. It’s fast, it’s easy, and it’s convenient. Here’s Mark Zuckerberg explaining it:

But it’s when you’re done with the conversation that things become problematic. To quote Zuckerberg verbatim: “And most fun, when you’re done with them, you just throw them away.”

It’s a gesture we’re all unconsciously very familiar with: it’s tossing something in the garbage. And why do you toss something in the garbage? Because it’s of no interest or value to you anymore.

This might not seem important, but it is.

Facebook is the dominant social platform: it ¬†intermediates many of our relationships, and in so doing, impacts them. Facebook Chatheads is a very polished and functional application. It’s where Facebook’s interface design is going.

The problem is the thinking embedded in Facebook’s design philosophy: that the people we talk to are disposable.

That’s not how I feel about many of my friends, but it’s how the software forces me to behave.

What’s really scary is how quickly you get used to it, and how it really is fun. When someone you don’t like pops up on your screen, you just toss them in the trash and they’re gone. It’s very gratifying. The software isn’t helping us to be more social, it’s teaching us to enjoy being casually dismissive of “friends.”

Is this really how we want our software to shape our thinking? Is this really the best that a sixty billion dollar company can do?

If you liked this post, check another piece I wrote, The Danger of Dusty Ideas, which informs a lot of the thinking at play here.

The telcos are screwed, I hope

Two things are going on that spells doom for telcos, and one that kinda sorta doesn’t.

Everything is getting cheaper and better, faster. I can’t wait to buy a Nexus 4. The only obstacle is that they’re sold out and will probably remain sold out for a while. It’s a pretty impressive phone, which has arguably better hardware than the iPhone 5,¬†unarguably¬†better software. It costs only $300. That $300 is out of contract, unlocked, and can be used with virtually any telco. I’ve been with Telus for almost a decade, and despite the fact that I have no real reason to complain about the service, I loathe them as a company. Given that I can get a top of the line phone for only $300, after my contract expires in 3 months I’ll never sign another.

When one company can sell a full featured phone for $300, their competitors can’t be far behind. This means that we’re going to see a structural decline in smartphone costs over the next year or so. This also means that carrier subsidies can go away, meaning contracts fall off the map for more and more consumers. It also means that in a BYOD world, carriers don’t get to inject crappy software into our smartphone experiences and disable features like VOIP that undercut their core offerings. For example, the new Windows Phone 8 has Skype built in and I can’t imagine Google Voice not eventually coming to Canada. Why would anyone pay inflated prices for minutes when voice is just another data service? Telco profitability is going to take a hit.

The saving grace for telcos is the rise of LTE. There’s not really any reason to have a wired connection at home if you’ve got an even faster wireless connection that follows you around everywhere. We’re still a few years away from this as the working model, so hopefully some better companies swoop in to meet us there.