Progress Without Questions

Last week I was in Colorado at a family reunion (hence the lack of writing) and randomly found a single page from the Des Moines Sunday Register. The main headline was a story about Edwin Wong, Yahoo’s director of business to business insights—he offered a group in Iowa tips on how to appeal to the millennial generation1. The tips were standard fare for business counsel, but what fascinated me was that the advice came unchecked. Let me explain what I mean: recently I wrote about the fallacy of believing all technology is good2, and that just because you can do something doesn’t necessarily mean you should. Wong’s point of view seems to be focused solely on results with no regard to potential consequences. (I do acknowledge that the article is a summary and subject to the author’s interpretation and/or bias.) Here are a few passages:

1. Appeal to consumers’ extrinsically motivated passions. For example, the website’s fantasy football component targets users’ passion for football and draws them into the world by appealing to their preferences, such as a favorite team. That extrinsic motivation soon becomes internalized and users now start to “talk trash” on the website, resulting in longer website engagement.

“Talking trash” can be harmless enough, but online vitriol and cyber-bullying are serious problems. Maybe the online interactions aren’t that big of a deal, but directly encouraging disputes so that you can keep people on your website longer is a concept that deserves careful thought—it certainly hasn’t helped the climate of civil discourse in our country.

3. For today’s generation, digital is not a part of life. Digital just is life. Millennials practically live on social media alongside other generations, Wong said. That’s why businesses have to be there, too. Because of social media, we now tell stories in pictures instead of words. Like cavemen.

People like to push this conversation into debate over whether social media is good or bad, addictive or not, etc. Many times they fall into the “luddite” camp, decrying technology as harmful, or the “technological determinist” camp, welcoming all technological advance as at least inevitable and often good. My concern with this suggestion is more around communication: is it healthy for businesses to encourage young people to communicate like cavemen? That’s an extreme analogy, of course, but it clearly expresses acceptance and promotion of devolving to more primitive forms of communication. As I said before, I don’t think the place to start is discussion over whether that’s good or bad, I think we need to start asking those questions in the first place.

4. But don’t forget the next wave of social media if you want to reach younger crowds. Secondary social sites like Snapchat and Secrets have grown in popularity among younger people. Companies have to meet them there in the future.

One more, just for emphasis. There’s no question here of how ephemeral social media forums affect young people, simply a mandate that businesses be there.

These thoughts about the future and technology have been on my mind often in the past few weeks. Our society’s overwhelming emphasis on the inevitability of technological advance—this is just the way things are—makes the act of raising questions feel luddite in and of itself. I earn my bread by working in technology. In fact, I’m training the people who build all of these digital products that we use, which gives me pause when I stop to think about it.

I’m still sorting out what this means in my life every day (not to mention the lives of my children if and when they come), but as I’ve written before, I’m convinced that the right place to start is asking asking questions3.

1. You can read the full article, titled Yahoo exec offers tips on how to tailor your appeal, on the Des Moines Register website.2. You can read the full article about Yo app and the fallacy of all technology as good here.3. I wrote a post called Threads of Belief, Questions and Answers that addresses this topic in the context of world views. You can read the full post here.

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Practicing the art of bringing guns to a knife fight.

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