Crossing the Privacy Chasm: How Can We Get People to Care About Their Data?
Recently I talked about the root problem with privacy (here’s the podcast if you prefer to listen to it) and what it would take to make change happen. A few days ago a friend of mine read the article I wrote and asked me: Is there a way to spread this kind of change on people?
That was a great question. That’s what I intend to answer in this article. Not the what, but the whys and hows. But in order to do that, first I have to talk about marketing and the innovation adoption cycle.
How innovations spread
This is a normal distribution:
If you get a random group of people in the streets and ask them to get in height order, what you would see is a couple of people who are not very tall, a couple of people who are very tall, but most people would be in the middle — around the same height.
This distribution applies to almost everything. There will always be a couple of examples in the far left, a couple of examples in the far right, but mostly everything (or everyone) is in the middle — the masses.
Here’s where we have to talk about Roger’s curve. It’s very hard for me to talk about marketing and not talk about Roger’s curve. And yes, we’re talking marketing. In the end, marketing is about spreading ideas to an audience, and that’s exactly what we need to do if we want to solve the privacy problem.
So this is how innovations spread.
Here’s another bell curve, but this one is slightly different:
We can divide this curve in three key areas. We’ve got the left edge. This one has two subgroups in it: Innovators and early adopters. Right in the middle we’ve got this big, fat, wide area. The masses. And in the right edge we’ve got the laggards.
So let’s talk briefly about each group. (A little aside here, when I say product, I mean any idea, message, or anything that aims to reach an audience)
1) Innovators and early adopters: these are the first ones to adopt an innovation. These are the geeks. And most important, these are the ones who spread the product or idea. Innovators are the very first to try something new. These are the ones that had a VR set before almost anybody knew what that was. And they’re the ones who spread that innovation to the early adopters, and these ones to the masses.
2) Majority: that’s the mass market — where most companies focus on, more often than not, unsuccessfully. This is a high competitive market. It lacks attention, because these people aren’t seeking something new. They don’t try a product until the first group have been using a it for a while, and then, everybody’s heard about it.
3) Laggards: I like to call them dinosaurs. These are the least innovative people on Earth. They don’t buy a product until it’s about to disappear — if ever they do, of course. They don’t want to hear from you, and you don’t want to hear from them. Period.
This is the famous Roger’s curve mentioned in Diffusion of Innovations back in the 1960s. And it’s the best way to understand how innovations spread through society.
A couple of quick thoughts here:
- Ideas, innovations, products, or any kind of change can only get their way through by focusing on the first group, the early adopters. That’s the group of people who want to try something new, and are willing to challenge the status quo. These are the people who spread that change to the rest of the curve.
- The masses and laggards are very good at ignoring you. The masses are appealing because they’re a big group, but they won’t adopt something until the early adopters push that change. Not the other way around.
Years ago Geoffrey A. Moore wrote a book called Crossing the Chasm, where he pointed out the reason most products that succeed within the early adopters group never make it to the masses, is because there’s chasm that separates those two groups.
It turns out that in Roger’s curve, between the early adopters and the masses there’s a gap, a chasm. And the dilemma companies face to cross that chasm, is that these two groups want something totally different. Innovators and early adopters want something that’s new, and the masses want something that works.
They want a totally different thing. But, what does this have to do with privacy?
The privacy chasm
If you think about it, when it comes to privacy, this is one of the reasons products with better privacy don’t make it to the masses.
What happens with products with better privacy is that most of them don’t work (and don’t solve the global privacy problem).
I know there’s a bunch of people sending me hate email right now, saying that these products do work, but let me explain myself here.
What I mean by that is most products with worse privacy work better or are more convenient (because people are locked-in). For example, a few months ago I changed my profile’s settings on Google, and deleted some default options like saving my browsing history on YouTube, turn off location tracking, and many more.
Well, I’m obsessed with privacy and I’m willing to pay the price of not having most of the benefits Google offers, but I doubt the mainstream public would ever do that. And let’s not talk about stop using Google products altogether. The reason people won’t switch is that the pile of benefits of having no privacy is greater than their need (or perceived need) of having more privacy. They want something that works.
Don’t get me wrong here. Too often products with better privacy work just as well as the other ones. But for the masses, they don’t justify the cost of switching.
Let’s consider DuckDuckGo, the search engine that doesn’t track you. I’ve been using it for a couple of years now, and it works just as fine as Google. But I’m an early adopter on this matter. The masses are locked-in with Google. It’s what they use, it’s what’s linked with their Google accounts. It’s just comfortable.
Or consider TOR browser. It’s the best browser when it comes to privacy. Its system hides your IP and allows you to use the Internet privately. It’s cool (I love it), but for most people it doesn’t work. When it covers your IP, it goes through eight or more IPs, therefore, it’s slow. It’s not as fast as a regular browser so people don’t use it — just innovators, early adopters and people doing weird things.
When it comes to privacy there’s a chasm we need to cross. Some might think that by using the law we can change things, but that won’t get us through the chasm. GDPR has make a huge change on privacy, and has forced some companies to do things right (alas, only the ones operating in Europe), but in order to cross that chasm and attack the root problem we need something that works.
Of course browsing privately won’t solve our lack of privacy — the problem is bigger than that. And tech companies have powerful lock-ins that don’t make it easy to switch. Nevertheless, we can’t force people to change their thoughts around this issue, but maybe we could build something that works, and make people switch and fight for privacy… Easier said than done.
But maybe there’s another way to make it through the masses.
How can we cross this sucker?
Here we’ve got two choices in order to cross the privacy chasm: (1) We can create better tools — something that works. Or (2) We can come with dramatic real-life examples that change people’s behavior.
Each one has a different challenge. But either way, both solutions should end up pushing political pressure, making sure people demand this change.
Let’s tackle one at a time:
Coming up with better tools.
This is hard, but not impossible. It represents a few big challenges, though.
The first one is that you’re competing billion-dollar corporations. Hey, it’s not impossible, and some solutions might come straight out of garages. But, you’re competing with entire departments whose only job is to use psychology and game theory to hook people in, and make their products as addictive as possible. And they work, flawlessly.
The second problem is that we don’t have any experience on how to deal with data ownership. We’ve got absolutely no idea. And as I always say, selling your data through a blockchain platform it’s far from being a solid solution.
And the third problem is timing. With enough time, the market would take care of itself (hopefully), but we’re facing a timely problem. So we need something more practical. ASAP.
The practical way.
There’s another way to cross this chasm, and that requires a different approach. In order to do that we’ve got to flip the situation.
Instead of offering something that works, we can come up with something (it could be just a message or methodology) that changes how people perceive the products they use— which suddenly would stop “working”.
Let me explain. If you discover that a great product like a smartwatch is making your insurance rate go up, dramatically, I have the feeling that however well designed it is, it’ll stop working.
I’m going out on a limb here and say that this is the right way, maybe the only way, to cross this chasm.
What do we need here? A process, a methodology, something that makes people see the actual cost of giving up their privacy. The fact that a product works or not is a perception. And that’s what we need to focus on: Perceptions.
The process is simple, but not easy. Here it goes.
- We need to come up with a methodology that moves people. We’ll need dramatic examples, real life changing examples that prove, on an individual level, how the current privacy standards are affection our day-to-day lives and future.
- We’ve got to forget about the masses — they won’t listen to us — and focus on the early adopters. These are the ones who are eager to hear from us , so we need to give them the tools to spread the word. By tools I mean a methodology, a story, something that allows them to talk about this problem and spread the message through curve, to the masses.
- Once we reach momentum, it’ll be time to occupy the streets and demand change, political change.
Of course this won’t remove the key players from the game — it won’t kill them. But it’ll turn the tables when regulations kick in.
This will buy us some time. Maybe this is the tipping point we’ve been looking for.