The User Annoyance Issue

May 22, 2012

The Annoyed User IssueIt isn't so much that we're annoying people today; it's that they can share their annoyance with others and do something about it. This has ramifications far beyond media, for our cultural foundation, it seems, sits to a degree on the quicksand of keeping that annoyance at bay. "Don't like it? Deal with it!" Maybe not so much anymore.

In a recent Nieman Journalism Lab "week in review," writer Mark Coddington used a term that bears some thought. Coddington was summarizing the media flurry over the dramatic drop in Facebook social apps and noted that many people blamed it on the annoyance of users (I happen to agree). While Facebook (of course) and others blame the drop on other factors, Coddington referred to what he called "the user annoyance issue."

I would like to officially canonize that phrase, because for media companies, it's the biggest, most dangerously overlooked issue since the beginning of disruptions brought about by the World Wide Web. Those damned users! If they'd just sit still for us long enough, we could figure out how to get our money stream back. Users. Phew! It's a dehumanizing term — like "consumers" — that gives business people with enough cash the notion that everyday people are pawns in their higher game.

Even though new media prophet Rishad Tobaccowala proclaimed the end of marketing's top-down manipulation in 2004, legacy thinking marches onward and runs smack dab into, well, the User Annoyance Issue.

"We've entered an empowered era in which humans are God, because technology allows them to be godlike. How will you engage God?"

We're apparently engaging this "God" without a great deal of respect, because the User Annoyance Issue is dismissed or overlooked. Worse, it's played as a game of tolerance. "Let's see how much they can take," the thinking goes, or "Let's see how much we can get away with." This has been going on for a very long time, for the gap between what people will tolerate and what sends them over the edge is often called "profit."

Amazingly, media companies still torture their readers and online users by forcing them to play the pageview game, breaking pages up into multiple pages, so that more advertising inventory can be displayed, the user experience be damned! These same companies welcome 30-second preroll ads for videos, not because it's good for business, but because ad agencies will pay them to annoy the crap out of their users. Television has done a similar dance on-the-air by slowly shrinking programming content length and increasing the number of ads in a pod. We can only do this by ignoring that sticky User Annoyance Issue, and we have only ourselves to blame for ad-skipping technologies.

A friend of mine's children were 4-5 years old a few years back, when vacation landed them at a motel. The kids were absolutely mystified as to why they had to watch commercials when they had a remote in their hand. They'd never lived in a DVR-less home, so they didn't realize that scanning ads wasn't the default for watching TV. Those kids — and countless just like them — will one day be 14, and then 24 and then 34, and so forth.

misleading headlineThe User Annoyance Issue is fueled by encouraging but outrageously misleading industry headlines, such as one on the left that appeared recently in Direct Marketing News: "Study: 70% of consumers welcome mobile ads." The headline was pulled from a self-serving "study" of consumer habits and thoughts by the cheerleading squad for the Internet advertising business, the IAB. This report is incredibly misleading, because the data was pulled from surveys with "260 respondents who identified themselves as mobile shoppers and already owned either a smartphone or feature phone." This is hardly representative of "consumers." Moreover, the way the question was worded tips the scale on behalf of the IAB — "Which of the following is closer to your view of ads on your mobile/smartphone? A personal invitation or a personal invasion?" Right.

the men of the hit show Mad MenMeanwhile, a Poll Position survey of 1,179 people nationwide on Jan 15th found that more than half (54%), said it's "acceptable" to have ads of 15 seconds online. 12 percent said 30 seconds was acceptable, 4 percent for 45 seconds; and just 3 percent for 60 second ads. This poll, too, misses it by setting the bottom at 15-seconds. Long ago, when Microsoft was building MSN, research was done about the optimum length for a pre-roll ad, and the result was 7-12 seconds. This was altered to 15-30 seconds, because that's what Madison Avenue would accept, and they controlled the money. But for those dreaded "users," 7-12 seconds was the limit before viewers began dropping out.

You can say just as much in 7-12 seconds as you can in 30, but the advertising industry — those Mad Men — is conditioned to think in terms of 15 and 30-second ads. This is not only cultural malfeasance; it's a failure of imagination.

But the User Annoyance Issue goes far beyond media and its advertising tap root, for there's a growing global awakening about the power of the individual in a hyperconnected world. Authority in our culture has always been a top/down thing. Power was at the top of a vast pyramid, with everybody else below. This meant that authority was distributed in forms and formats that were one-to-many. It's always been this way in the West.

When most Americans think of our early history, the emphasis is always on the birth of the new and not the death of the old. That's because the winner in war gets to write the history, and we were the winners. We're a revolutionary lot, we Americans. Our roots are bathed in the blood of those who had the courage to take up arms against tyranny. Of course, we say "tyranny" quite easily, but to the British (those gawd-awful "Redcoats"), the colonists were disrespectful pests that needed to be put in their place. Had the British won, we'd be reading a very different version of how dissidents were taught a hard lesson.

I see many similarities today in the tension between those who rule and those who serve. There is very much another revolution underway, although it's not being fought with guns, not yet anyway. My money's again on the dissidents, who will likely not be kind to us when writing the history of the postmodern, postcolonial, postChristian age. What we're witnessing today is the increasingly strident posturing that will lead to the actual battle. Stay tuned.

highway mileage signWhen learning to drive a car, we're taught about all kinds of signs, why they're shaped this way or that or colored yellow, green, red or whatever. The image to the right shows an information sign, in this case mileage to a choice of three destinations. You would not see this particular sign unless you were on this particular highway, so the ability to see signs along the way in Life depends on the path one chooses to follow. I see signs everywhere that point to a fracturing in the foundation that undergirds our culture. I could be completely nuts, but you know what? More and more people are seeing the same signs.

The technology of the Web has given us a Second Gutenberg Moment in history. It has shifted communications from the top-down to what Jay Rosen calls "The Great Horizontal." Not only can we talk back to power, but we can also talk to each other to affirm or refute that which we're being told by those in power, who are justifiably desirous of keeping things just the way they are.

A hundred years from now, this will all be understood, and today all we have is conjecture. But reading the signs provides glimpses of what's ahead. Where the institutions cannot fix that which troubles the people, the people will take it upon themselves to do it, regardless of the cost to the institutions (or to the people). Media has been first. Education is very clearly next, and already that is accelerating. Healthcare will follow. Then, the law. You can hear the drumbeats in the distance, all led by these incredibly annoyed users people of which I write today.

Seth Godin quoteNot only are people annoyed, they're scared. Nothing seems to be working anymore, and the promises of those "in charge" ring increasingly hollow. Things that the fortunate take for granted are just outside everybody else's reach. The economy sucks. The young people in my life are all struggling with the idea of a real career. It feels like one very long season is ending and another is beginning, and for many people, it's a hopeful but frightful time. The equilibrium of the old seems terribly unstable today, so what do we do, corporately and individually?

The answer begins with a decision. Are we going to embrace change and serve Tobaccowala's new god, or are we going to fight it? This is both a personal and a business decision. Choose wisely.

Any attempt to confront the User Annoyance Issue from the media side must begin by acknowledging the annoyances and doing whatever it takes to remove them. If we would follow this path, we might discover some things about those "users" that would lead to logical solutions to our difficulties in this new world. We certainly aren't going to find answers by hammering people with things that make them cringe.

What do we have to lose, really?