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It Might Be Creepy, but Is It Evil?

by Jeffrey Mann  |  September 26, 2010  |  10 Comments

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.

The Clown

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.

Category: compliance  email  google-vendors  privacy  social-media  social-software  technology  

Tags: creepiness  creepy  gcreep  google  privacy  sna  social-network-analysis  social-networking  

Jeffrey Mann
Research VP
20 years with Gartner and META Group
30 years IT industry

Jeffrey Mann is a Research VP at Gartner, covering cloud office, collaboration and social software.

Thoughts on It Might Be Creepy, but Is It Evil?

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jovi Umawing, Jeff Mann and Chad M. Goode, Uptime Devices. Uptime Devices said: It Might Be Creepy, but Is It Evil? […]

  2. Nick Jones says:

    I agree there’s no universal definition of creepiness, but I think that many instances of creepiness share some common characteristics. For example creepy things often involve one or more of the following:

    1. Unpleasant surprise – e.g. “I never knew that was possible”.

    2. Uncertainty – because you don’t know or can’t predict what unpleasant things might happen as a consequence of whatever seemed creepy. E.g. seeing your house on street view feels like it might enable someone to do something undesirable even if you’re not sure quite sure what that might be.

    3. Intrusion – many creepy things (and people) involve intrusion into personal space or private information. Eg. if I saw someone outside staring at my house for hours I’d certainly want to know why. But Street view allows someone to do it over the web without my ever knowing it happened.

    So maybe we could define the Jones-Mann creepiness scale as: (CS + CU + CI) / 3 where CS is surprise, CU is uncertainty and CI is intrusion each one measured as an estimate of the percentage of the population who would be concerned by whatever is being measured. I’d rate your clown as only about 10% creepy as it probably scores moderately on the uncertainty scale (you can never tell what a clown will do next) but fairly low on the intrusion and surprise scales.


  3. @iJohnDNS says:

    Jones-Mann? that’s a little bit creepy. How about Mann-Jones?

    I had a simlar conversation with one of the mega-vendors a year ago when they focussed the next version of their collaboration tool on allowing the corporation to get more out of its employees by monitoring ‘everything’ an employee did (well they were into databases).This seemed to me a bit too much like big brother.

  4. Saqib Ali says:

    I guess this is where Ethnologicians can help. Obviously that can’t fix the issue i.e. they can’t make something uncreepy, but they can help the builders understand why something may be perceived creepy by a certain segment of the population.

    Let’s build it and let the lawyer defend it philosophy is not very sustainable…..

  5. Jeffrey Mann says:

    Isn’t measuring creepiness kind of creepy in itself?
    i would point out that Streetview does not let someone stare at your house; it lets someone stare at a picture of your house taken some time ago.

  6. Rawn Shah says:

    I think there are different levels of creepiness

    – being able to see how many people one is connected to (not so creepy)
    – being able to see who one is connected to (creepy)
    – being able to see the content of others (creepier)
    – being able to interject content into their content (super creepy).

    But we see this in recommendation engines and degrees-of-separation tools everywhere e.g. like LinkedIn, or Facebook. On FB: \your friends X and Y used FB Marketplace. try it out\

    This is where privacy settings for sharing such details become required and each person should think carefully about their settings.

  7. Drew Ellis says:

    >Something as squishy as “how people feel” doesn’t fit into their engineering plans.

    I think this statement of Jeffrey’s in particular, offers a real glimpse at a fundatmental underlying cause of the creepiness factor (and other forms of poor usability): namely, that many technology providers view their products as engineering challenges, or products to get out the door, or a process to be rendered more efficient. Their hubris is to offer yet another featureset without necessarily even understanding the human (social) dynamic around the “problem” – never mind the actual feelings they elicit in users. I believe this makes it easier for people to come to represent entire technologies (or initiatives) as creepy – or something else that shuts their minds off to innovation and a potentially better situation. In some cases, I think it’s enough of a shame to call it evil, but that is subjective. With some inspiration from Nick’s thoughtful algorithm however, I could see the creepiness factor as a neat indicator of sorts (and potential benchmark) to illustrate technology providers’ disconnect with the real world.

  8. […] Jeffrey Mann is a research vice president for collaboration and social software at Gartner Research. Mr. Mann focuses on social software, team workspaces, the collaboration market and knowledge management. Read Full Bio Coverage Areas: ← It Might Be Creepy, but Is It Evil? […]

  9. Anand Ramakrishnan says:

    At the end of the day, what all of us have to realize is that social eavesdropping is here to stay. People can feel creepy to whatever extent they want, it will not stop all the companies from using this data and customizing their interaction with you. As long as the data is used in a productive way without malice, there should not be any issue in this. After all, would you not want say for example – a promotion on a product you tweeted favourably about or sang praises in Facebook?


  10. […] not about legal restrictions and requirements on privacy, but about how social media makes people feel. Many are not comfortable with sharing too much in their professional lives, and social techniques […]

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