I’ve been thinking about “creepiness” over the last couple weeks. I’ve been finding the concept come up more and more as I speak with end users and vendors about social software, because it is becoming a real barrier to adoption as end users react with sometimes unexpected revulsion at what seems normal or trivial to others. It is hard to pin down what constitutes creepiness and what to do about it, which makes it such a difficult concept. For example, some people always think of clown pictures as creepy.
But usually, creepiness is all about perception and how a policy, feature, or incident makes people feel. There is no ISO standard for degrees of creepiness that everyone can agree on. That makes it hard for many technology suppliers to get their heads around. They are accustomed to making powerful tools that can do amazing things. Something as squishy as “how people feel” doesn’t fit into their engineering plans.
That feeling is not rational, but triggered by deep, unexplainable ur-reactions. I saw that myself when a supermarket I visit started using big monitors that display every item I bought as I went through checkout. Intellectually, I know that anyone can look over my shoulder and see what is on the rolling band. Still, it felt super-creepy to see all my purchases displayed on a big screen for all to see. I must not have been the only one; that experiment didn’t last long.
This problem has come up a couple times when talking to vendors promoting social network analysis (SNA). A tool to map the real communication lines and understand who collaborates with whom is undeniably a powerful tool, one that many companies can profit from. However, describe SNA as “our system will snuffle around in your email, read all the documents you create, and analyze everything you post on the intranet and Internet so that we know more about how the organization works” and you can feel the anti-creepiness hackles rise. Explaining that only automated algorithms will read the email (no people) and that subjects can preview and edit the analyses generated can help, but not really. The feeling of creepiness persists.
Different situations and places also bring different attitudes. Instant messaging and presence are good bellwethers. It is part of the standard infrastructure and work process in may organizations, while in others, employees rebel at the thought that their bosses can monitor when they are at their desk from a distance. What is a useful and even necessary communications tool to most is as bad as hanging surveillance cameras in the bathroom would be to others. Anecdotally, Germans seem to be especially sensitive to these issues. Hundreds of thousands of people in Germany reportedly find seeing their house on Google Streetview too creepy to bear.
Creepiness is also impossible to defend against. The second a company or a person starts to explain why what they have done is not creepy, it already ipso facto becomes creepy.
Google recently made the news with a creepy story of a Google employee who was fired after he used his position as an engineer to read the email, chat logs and other private information of some kids he had met IRL. While creepiness is often hard to define, everything about this incident was creepy. The facts of the breach itself, the pictures of the offending employee, the fact that children were involved, and the realization that quite a few Google employees can apparently dip into our private communications — all of this adds up to a huge bout of creepiness.
There is not much that Google could do in this instance, except fire the creepy guy and hope that the incident blows over. It looks like that will happen, but I expect the overall issue of creepiness will not go away so easily.