The Ethics of Manipulation

There have been numerous incidents of children becoming addicted to the popular online game PUBG. A friend of mine recently told me about a kid in his neighbourhood who becomes violent and starts abusing his parents whenever he isn’t allowed to play.

This begs me to question, why do we build products? To solve a problem or to make the world a better place, right? To build a successful product, there’s no denying that you need to bring users back. But ethical lines get blurry when addiction becomes a substitute for retention.

Reid Hoffman says that he doesn’t invest in businesses that don’t exploit one of the Seven Deadly Sins. For example, Facebook exploits envy and pride. LinkedIn exploits greed. But when it comes to building a company, you also gotta ask yourself if your end goal is to make the world a better place, or is it to exploit and cash out.

(To make few things clear, a company is not a business. A business is all about cash flow, revenue, DAU/MAU, etc. A company is a mission, a philosophy, and a school of thought. Unfortunately, entrepreneurs often forget about the company while running the business.)

To be honest, if you want to build a successful product, some form of manipulation is indeed important. (The socially acceptable word for manipulation is nudge but I prefer manipulation to remind me to keep things in perspective.)

But there’s good manipulation and there’s bad manipulation. If I manipulate you into building a healthy habit, say exercising everyday, it’s good manipulation. If I manipulate you into eating unhealthy food everyday, it’s bad manipulation.

In the name of building a successful product, if your end goal is to exploit human addiction, and build cigarettes of the 21st century such as PUBG, Fortnite, TikTok, then clearly there’s something very sinister about your intentions. It’s bad manipulation.

Nir Eyal wrote the Bible of getting people addicted to consumer apps such as Snapchat, Instagram, or TikTok. Hooked is literally the handbook of manipulation. According to Eyal, there are four types of manipulators:

  1. Peddler: A peddler doesn’t use the product they are building, but promotes them.
  2. Facilitator: A facilitator uses what they create, and believes that it would significantly improve users’ lives.
  3. Entertainer: An entertainer uses what they create, but cannot in good conscience claim that it improves the lives of the users.
  4. Dealer: A dealer doesn’t use what they sell, and doesn’t believe that it betters human lives.

You would ideally want to be a Facilitator. But it’s not so straight forward.

When asked, “Would I use it?” and, “Will it improve my users’ lives?” I can twist my answers to bend the truth. For example, I like to play video games, so I’ll definitely play PUBG. And yes, games do help relieve stress, so yeah, it definitely improves lives. This way you fool yourself along with others.

When you answer things in such black and white manner, you miss the asymmetry of the upside and downside. Relieving stress via PUBG has a lot of downside than upside. Therefore, what you also have to ask is, “Would I encourage my kids and family members to us it? Would I want them to get addicted to it?” This’ll give you perspective.

If you aren’t a teetotaller, then you wouldn’t mind having a glass of wine. You might also think that the world is better with wine than without. But you won’t want your family members to drink everyday, would you? On the other hand, if you love running, you wouldn’t mind encouraging your friends and family members to go for a jog in the morning everyday.

Having said that, any form of addiction is still bad no matter how good the behaviour. You have to put a check on good manipulation as well. For example, journaling is good. Journaling all day doesn’t make sense. Exercising is good, but not when you do it 24/7. Similarly, reading is good. But if you only read, and do nothing with the knowledge you gain, you are just like a static library without any practical use.

So apart from good manipulation, you also have to make sure that you don’t manipulate more than necessary.

So, I’m not saying that PUBG and other similar products are pure evil, and nobody should be allowed to play video games. My case is against addiction, not PUBG or alcohol, or smoking. A game or two, or a drink or two once in a while is OK.

If your product makes lives better in the short term, it’s your moral and ethical duty to make sure that they don’t engage with the product more than necessary. Therefore an ethical approach would be to implement self-censoring within the system to prevent any kind of addiction.

For example, what if PUBG didn’t allow school kids to play more than 3 games a day? This way, if you ask me, “Would I encourage my family members or kids to use it?” the answer would most likely be yes.

For a habit forming product, you definitely need to bring users back to the app. But you don’t need them to be there all the time. The idea is to build a healthy business, not an addiction. You are not a drug dealer.

The goal is not to build a big business, but a better one. Not growth at all costs, but growth at a healthy pace. For example, the mission should be to build healthy office communication, not Slack-based distraction.

In a world like ours, PUBG and Fortnite do have a place. But like with eating, smoking, drinking, exercising, and everything else in life, too much of something is never good.

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