New Forms of Consumer Guilt

How our desire to own things changes when they are connected.

Conspicuous yes. But consumption?

Like a number of you I purchased a Twine — a thing that provides new ways to sense, measure and understand the world around us. I’m a happy customer — they’ve done a good job in rallying a community and bringing it to market. Although I’ve never met the team I have a greater affinity for who they are and what they’re trying to do than most of my brand relationships.

But I’ve hardly used it.

And then I received an email nudge from them.

I just wanted to check in and see how things are going with you and your Twine.

We want you to enjoy owning Twine as much as we enjoyed designing it, so please let us know if you have any questions!

I assume this email is in response to how little I’ve been using Twine, the range of things that I tried using it for and how quickly I stopped experimenting with it — when a product is connected it’s easy to pull up that data. The email is subtle enough to be read as something more generic and certainly doesn’t come across as big-brotherish. But it did trigger pangs of guilt.

Guilt that the blood, sweat and tears they put into bringing this to market; the environmental impact of manufacturing, shipping it to me; and in spending the time on support to set it up; all were not repaid through sustained use. I also know they know (and if they are reading this, they know I know they know). Hence the guilt.

Which is a good thing, because a better understanding of use can help me make smarter choices of what to spend my money on in the future. Or at least from today’s perspective, because new models of consumption, sale, support, ownership and use emerge — it is not a static landscape. (I consider myself a consumer in the sense of appreciating consumption, use, rather than wanton consumption).

A teapot? Or a conversation starter?

In a world where your new car, bicycle, camera lens and drill all inherently share back “intended” use, a few thoughts for today:

  • What are your moral and legal obligations for the products you buy? For example use, consumption, disposal.
  • What are your social obligations for the products you buy? How do you message the act of ownership, consumption, sharing?
  • What is the disparity between intended use and actual use? And who gets to see that disparity?
  • When, and in what ways is it appropriate for companies to share back usage data? The oft-held assumption is that this will lead to behavioural change, for example a pedometer leading to more steps walked per day. More interesting is how this impacts the desire to buy and consume that product in the first place.
  • What are the value added service opportunities for making the most of a new product? What is the most conducive moment to sell-up for every kind of product/service? For example offering insurance while the adrenalin of a near miss is still fresh.
  • Which companies will trigger near-misses to sell value added services?
  • Which companies will base their entire business model off the the disparity between intended use at the time of purchase versus actual use? Amazon does this bait and switch with (“free”) Prime Instant Videos to pull customers into buying Prime but then offering (by market standards) a suboptimal experience in finding those films to assumedly reduce royalty fees and encourage paid purchases.
  • How does this feedback loop shift the adoption curve? In particular how does use-transparency impact early adopters whose motivation is driven by experiencing something first?
  • How does feedback loop change conspicuous consumption? For example that pink Bentley in Shanghai.
  • What kinds of secondary markets does this enable? Amazon’s email nudge for you to sell used books that you bought from them a few years ago is a good example: they know what you bought, where you live, what people like you put back onto the market, what that book is now worth and to whom (even better they likely make better margins off used books, since they only act as a broker, and don’t need to hold it in stock).

Ultimately connected objects change our sense of ownership and if you want to extrapolate a little, connectivity changes our need to track where the objects we own are. Not in the sense that we will know the discrete location of things, but rather in the sense that objects will either have built in mechanisms to find their way back to us, or to encourage other people to draw utility from them when we are not.

It’s good to unravel a Twine.

I’m a writer, photographer and the Founder of Studio D. I first wrote about this in 2013 , republished here because it’s interesting to see how much of it still holds true today. Follow me on Instagram. Want more? Subscribe to the Borderlands mailing list.

If you liked this click [heart] so others can do.

Like what you read? Give Jan Chipchase a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.