Parasites and scumbags on the web: a hall of shame

Few people would agree with the phrase “I love and trust marketing companies”. Even having worked in marketing, I would still disagree with this statement. Marketing is primarily about finding ways to persuade people to change their behaviour, in order to commercially benefit a company. This is not hard to do, and decades of psychology study in this field has shown just how easy it is to manipulate people’s actions, by many avenues and methods. However, if you asked people, “are you happy to be manipulated“, I’m confident that most people would say no. This introduces the question of ethics – under what circumstances, and by which methods, is this manipulation/persuasion ok? Similar concerns exist also around the privacy of users, and in the last few years we have seen discussion about the right of users to control how their data is used. I’ve personally had to wrestle with conforming to the GDPR, to determine how we can continue to capture important analytics, while still respecting users, and being honest and transparent about how their data is used.

My point here, is that in our modern online society, maintaining trust of users is incredibly important. Trust is one of those things that is hard to build, and incredibly easy to lose. While people are often naive, they are not stupid. Companies that demonstrate obnoxious or deceptive behaviour may escape scrutiny for some time, but when discovered they are likely to be (rightly) subject to criticism and backlash on social media. It is unfortunate that companies that operate with integrity, may not be commercially rewarded, but rather than seeing such policies as strategically foolish, they should be compared with the possible outcomes and commercial losses from losing the trust of users.

As a result, I think it is appropriate to call out companies for practices that show disregard or disrespect to a user’s time, privacy, or will. Some may call this a rant, but I think bringing truth and light to underhanded or “dark patterns” helps to spread awareness about these practices, and in turn I hope this will discourage companies from such behaviour. Dark patterns’ website has their own list, but I thought I would add and maintain my own too…

Hall of shame

  1. ReadCube: Readcube partners with Wiley to provide in-browser PDF reading. Why scumbag? ReadCube literally hijacks “get PDF” requests by users and instead redirects users to a DRM laden (usage rights controlled) in-browser view. Users are unfairly subject to tracking of their behaviour without granting explicity permission, and complete agreement to the ReadCube terms of service is also assumed implicitly without ever getting the users agreement. The only way to avoid and disable ReadCube ePDF is to agree to have a “disable cookie” added to your browser. While they have suffered backlash and criticism for their behaviour, they are unrepentant and have doubled down to whitewash their practices. In their response, they successfully ignore the elephant in the room: when a user clicks “get PDF”, they want a PDF. Their primary users (the global research community) would be arguably one of the most intelligent cohorts in the world, so I think it is condescending and obnoxious to assume users will be happy with anything other than a PDF.
  2. Dropbox: even after signing up to a paid account (not cheap!), users are still subject to heavy marketing by dropbox to upgrade to their business offerings with no way to opt out. This behaviour is obnoxious, and shows disrespect for the user’s decision.
  3. Kogan: “Made an order with Kogan? Oh, that must mean you want us to start sending you unsolicited advertisements by email again, so we’ve added you back to our newsletter! Here’s your first email: Welcome Back to Kogan.com! Do we care you you unsubscribed after your last purchase, the purchase before it, and the one before that? Nope, not a chance! Here, have some more emails yet again!” Kogan, your marketing department is a bunch of twits obnoxious.

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