Thursday, February 14, 2008

Persuading for Enlightenment

I posted yesterday about Google.org, Al Gore, climate change, and the important distinction between enlightenment and strategic persuasion. Larry Brilliant, Executive Director of Google.org, believes that one way his organization can contribute to saving the world is by gathering and disseminating information (something for which Google has a special talent) and enlightening people about climate change. Al Gore, however, believes that enlightenment has lost the power it once had. The truth is now up against strategic persuasion campaigns, so the truth needs to strategically persuade back.

I ended the post wondering about my project and how it might fit into a world dominated by strategic persuasion. After continuing to wonder for a day, here's my attempt to condense my thoughts into something manageable...

Looking at the project from one angle, it's an intensely pure enlightenment initiative. We want to enlighten ourselves at the same time we're enlightening the people using our website. We want to help consumers identify the businesses most worthy of their support. Somewhat counterintuitively, however, we want to do that without claiming any authoritative knowledge about any individual business's worthiness. We want to gather information, organize it, present it, and participate in the ensuing discussion.

We're separating the world into consumer product categories. We're identifying the companies that do business in each category. We're collecting opinions from experts and consumers about which of those companies do things most responsibly (sustainably, humanely, transparently). And we're trying to make it easy for consumers to choose which products to buy based on which companies they want to support.

There's one very big reason I think it's essential that we operate this way...

In contrast to the climate change issue, there is no comprehensive scientific consensus on what it means to do business humanely and sustainably. The science and quantitative analysis is piecemeal. The information is disorganized and disputed. And opinions vary quite widely with the different angles from which an expert can look at a company: Company X might be managing their waste beautifully, for example, but they might be slack on vendor vetting and buy from suppliers that run sweatshops.

Everyone right now is to some extent unenlightened, so, as unenlightened people moderating an information exchange between unenlightened people, we have a responsibility be humble and agnostic. We have a responsibility not to strategically persuade.

All that said, however, there is persuasion inherent in the fact that we're building this website. We're not strategically persuading people to buy from Company X or Company Y, but we will, by virtue of existing, tell people that there is a meaningful difference between buying from Company X and buying from Company Y.

We are building this website because we think people need to know which businesses are more sustainable than their competitors. We don't think a capitalist economy works for the good of the people unless the values of the economy's businesses reflect the values of the economy's people, and we don't think those values match up right now. One reason they don't match up, we think, is that the businesses have insufficient incentives to follow their customers' moral lead. While people do consider values when they choose between family run bagel shops in their hometowns, they don't consider values when they choose between Pepsi and Coke, between McDonald's and Wendy's, between Nokia and Motorola. We think this is because they don't have an easy way to do it. So we want to try to help.

Basically, we think it's important that an enlightenment happens. Because that enlightenment hasn't happened yet, we're not enlightened, so we can't be activists: we can't strategically persuade. We do feel strongly, however, that we need an enlightenment, so, hopefully, building our website and inviting people to use it will be persuasive.

I could be wrong. Maybe the best way to approach this would be to fully enlighten ourselves first and then get cracking on grand persuasion strategy. I don't know. I fear that might take too much time. I wonder what Al Gore and Dr. Brilliant would have to say. Maybe I need to give Google.org a call.

Note: One more reminder to check out Sergey's pants.

2 comments:

Jefferson Parke said...

Brilliantly stated, Jake. I completely agree. It's important that we not over simplify all problems surrounding social responsibility by equating them with environmental problems.

Certainly enlighten, persuade as needed, but we (at large) can't sleep on the incentives. Have you seen stickK.com? It was started by a couple economists who decided to experiment with contracts and financial penalties in order to bring the true costs of long term actions into much sharper focus. In their case, they wanted to lose weight and agreed to charge one another for any pounds not lost (or regained) per a long-term contract.

I wonder if incentives like these can be worked into the project. Then again, enlightenment by itself is a huge bite to chew.

Jake de Grazia said...

I had a look at stickK.com, and I like the concept.

Not sure how stickK-style incentives can be worked into the project. They would work beautifully with a carbon footprint calculator service like Make Me Sustainable, however.

I definitely want to find ways to creatively and meaningfully incentivize (incent?) user contribution to the product search brand comparison site. It's a distant goal of course, given that we don't have a public beta ready site, let alone revenue, but I think revenue sharing with our most active and trusted community members is something we should at the very least consider. If it's those people that are driving users back to our site, and if we agree that usership will be the key variable in determining whether this project can be financially sustainable, then I think we should think hard about how to reward them.

I guess I took your comment and kind of ran in a different direction, didn't I? Sorry.

Anyway, yeah. Incentives. Important. We should build them into the system however we can.