The Little Sign That Could

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Here is a sign that signs work. Log onto any Google Group of which you are a member and have the right to post. Then hit "New Topic". Right below the group name but above the "Subject", you will see a simple paragraph, beginning with Note: and highlighted in yellow.

Note: You are posting to an external group using an account that is managed by _________. Please think carefully before posting or replying, the content of these discussions may be publicly visible.

Most people are quite aware why this warning is here. It has become too easy for people to write obnoxious and insulting things on the Internet, especially in comment fora and group discussions.

The two interesting questions are:

  1. Does this little warning work, and if so, why?
  2. Why does Google have an interest in making this work?

Does It Work?

The facile answer is, yes, of course it does, why else would they waste precious screen real estate on it. The deeper answer is that it works only partly, but at a fairly low cost. Let us assume that Google has an interest in getting posters to behave (more on that below). Like any business with an interest, they want to do so at the lowest cost for the highest benefit, i.e. the lowest ROI.

The question to ask is, why does someone behave in a certain way online that they would never consider offline?

For some small number of users, that hardcore minority who enjoy it, they actually behave that way offline. Unfortunately, I have worked with a few of those over the years, both in companies and as customers. For the rest, the anonymity of the online interaction removes the human voice (on phone) and face (in person) that restrains someone with the often subconscious knowledge that the person on the other side is a real human being who will (a) be hurt and (b) is likely to lash back. In other words, a large number of people have an inclination to speak/write inappropriately, but will naturally hold themselves back if only they are respectfully made aware of the consequences. The hardcore minority, of course, is fully aware of the consequences and relishes them.

Having a gently (it is yellow, not red) highlighted note (not a warning), that everything you write "may be publicly visible" serves a similar function to the counter-party's face or voice: a little reminder that actions have consequences.

Interestingly, this reminder is cheap, simple, far easier and far more accurate than automated policing algorithms, which would be engineer-heavy, Google's natural preference.

Why Should Google Care?

Google makes money from very large user engagement with their products. Google Groups is free because enough users on the groups means sufficient advertising impressions to make real money. The more fora become a place for people to behave in a nasty fashion, the more they will attract the hardcore minority who enjoy it, but the less they will get the much larger general audience who join a group for a reason other than besmirching other members' intelligence, behaviour, looks, or familial provenance.

Google has a very strong interest in ensuring regular user engagement. The more users are turned off by other user behaviour, even if it is not Google's fault, the less engaged they will be, the fewer impressions, the less revenue for Google.

Why Should You Care?

This is a classic example of small, inexpensive changes in user interface - digital and physical, visual or vocal - leading to large changes in user behaviour. Where can you solve large customer behaviour and interaction problems with a simple solution?