The Customer Grift

I think we are all quite accepting now of the fact that ‘the customer is always right’ has been replaced with ‘the computer is always right’. All around the world, companies are struggling to offer even basic customer services (I buy stuff, you send stuff) as confused ‘support’ staff battle to make computers do what we all know is the logical response to ‘buy stuff’ – i.e. send me what i ordered, the way I ordered it, and not something entirely different to a different place at a different time 🙂 We fight, we shout, we cry, we hit our heads on our desk and sometimes we get lucky and after expending hours of time and energy we actually get what we want. Other times we just give up. I’ve tried billing a company for the time I have spent being my own customer support – yeah, that doesn’t work.

So even if this basic, clearly customer lead environment, we can’t cope with being a customer. It gets even more confusing when our notion of customer is toyed with, thrown on its head and cast as an illusion. There is a simple name for what happens when you don’t understand your role in a transaction – it’s called a grift…or a confidence trick.

Two of my favourite cultural discoveries of the year both deal with grifting – American Gods and Zombieland. Both detail a confidence trick that involves confusing the mark about the value of something and about their ownership of that something – a violin and an engagement ring in turn. In these examples, the actually objects put out to play in the grift are effectively useless. A different approach is required when dealing with an object that has real value to the mark. In these scenarios, simplicity is key.

In American Gods, Wednesday steals significant sums of money from people with three simple techniques: 1) hanging an out of order sign on a deposit box, 2) wearing the uniform of a guard and 3) having a (fake) character witness at the end of the phone. People literally queued up to give away their money.

It’s something that we replicate everyday.

I’ve always said that academic publishing is the biggest confidence trick ever run. I always imagine trying to explain academic publishing to an alien: universities fund people to carry out research, said researchers then give that away to publishers for free, other researchers vet, judge and rate the stuff for free, publishers make it available for a fee….and universities buy it back. It’s Wednesday’s con in a different guise, although the publishers take it further and make you buy your valuables back. Brilliant! I’m not the only person to marvel at this business model.

Another classic con is the process of offering something to someone seemingly for free…as long as you just do x, y and z first. This is the approach used by the 419 scammers, and yes people have fallen for these scams enough times to make it big business. We might laugh at the badly worded emails fronting these scams, but we fall for it in other ways everyday by signing up to the plethora of free services that the social media world has to offer.

“If you’re not the customer, you’re the product” may have already have become a hackneyed phrase…but for me it rings quite true. Services no longer have to sell you something to make money, instead they take something from you that adds value to their offering and sell that concept on to other people: data, status and reputation. if a company can convince you to 1) sign up and give them all of your very valuable information, 2) get you to shout out about the use of that service and 3) get you to build up a profile within the service that will attract offers, confidence job done. All they need then to do is get you to pay an monthly fee for that service at a later date and they match the academic publisher in grifting skill.

I am of course being purposefully cynical here. I use loads of social networking sites and enjoy them immensely. I do it however with my eyes wide open. I’ve been amused lately by the outcry from people at Facebook’s recent changes to the way in which Facebook displays news feeds and they way Facebook uses cookies. ‘Let’s lobby them to change it!’ is not going to help. That’s a customer response. You’re not a customer.

So will we see a mass migration of people over to Google+ / The Next Big Social Thing? For that to work, you are going to need to persuade the things that add value to Facebook for you to move over to…and that’s people, not features. Once there, you can join in another identity battle – the ‘nym’ wars, with Google refusing to allow people to use pseudonyms, but have a really awful way of judging whether something is, or is not, a real name.

Where’s the real fight?

The Open Access movement is of course trying to tackle the academic publishing con. In the identity space, championing the non-open is good….identity should not be an open commodity. People are already trying to fight this cause around the banner of a ‘personal data ecosystem’ (a phrase that makes me shudder, protect my s**t would probably resonate with more people!). You’ll see things like UMA from Kantara, Mydex in the UK and various commerical offerings. The challenge faced by these attempts to take back ownership of personal data? The people giving it away just don’t care enough.

So what can we do about it? In terms of the identity problem, I think you have to either care about it and take responsibility for managing it, or decide you don’t care. If the first, it’s not enough to just move to another platform that you think might be more caring and cuddly about your identity information, you need to engage in something that allows you to actively manage your identity data. It’s a trade off, and will restrict the services you get to use…but is that worth the price?

If the later, then don’t complain if the service isn’t too your liking – you are not the customer, you are the product…you will be assimilated.