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JerkTech: The Unacceptable Face of Technology?

It seems to be turning into a bad week for those that believe technology is solely a force for good. Firstly, the UK government has rushed through new legislation that means that ISPs and telecoms companies have to store metadata on email and phone communications (though not their actual content). The aim of the new law is to fight crime and protect the country against terrorism, according to the Prime Minister.

And over in the US, there’s a growing backlash against so-called JerkTech applications. For those that have missed the debate, these are applications that let people sell on resources at above the market rate that they’ve paid. For example, Monkey Parking enables drivers who are parked in public streets to auction off their space, while ReservationHop makes reservations at hard to book restaurants under false names and then sells them on.

The key point about these apps, and those like them, is that they corner the market in publically available resources (whether parking spaces or restaurant tables) and then charge people for the privilege of using them. While this is neat in economic terms – you are taking something that is underpriced and selling it at the market rate, they remove the ability for anyone to chance upon a parking space or get that hot table. And the actual provider of the resource (City council or restaurateur) doesn’t get any benefit at all. Indeed, if ReservationHop fails to sell a booking the restaurant will have an empty table that it could have filled in other ways. Hence, the JerkTech name, as coined by Josh Constine of Tech Crunch.

The best technology is disruptive – but that does come with risks and potentially even responsibilities. In the same way that scientists and medical researchers are governed by ethical standards, just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should. This particularly applies to ways of using technology to manipulate people (without their consent). There’s been a huge furore about a Facebook experiment where users were served a preponderance of either happy or sad content in their newsfeed – the result of this manipulation was that they posted either more positively or negatively themselves.

We live at an exciting time for technology. We’re moving beyond the original web, to a more mobile, wearable and all-encompassing version, with the Internet of Things allowing previously dumb machines to communicate in real-time in order to improve our lives. The danger is that the sheer pace of change will overwhelm everyone except for early adopters, and consequently new innovation will either be banned or will simply not be used by those that it could benefit. Genuine advances (and I don’t mean parking apps or social networks) will be lost, and there is a potential that geeks will join bankers in the category of ‘most hated profession’.

I think everyone in the tech community needs to think about four questions before they launch (or market) new innovations if they want them to flourish.

  1. Is there a genuine need behind your software, hardware or app? No, we don’t need yet another social network.
  2. What are the positive and negative consequences of your disruption? I don’t mean that a big business will be inconvenienced or will lose market share, but will it hit those that genuinely have no other source of income or add to the load on the public purse? If so, how can you spread the benefits to them, such as by creating a social enterprise or partnership.
  3. Is it ethical and responsible? In the absence of any existing code, maybe the best way to check this is to explain it to a senior citizen – do they find it fair?
  4. And finally, is it secure? Is there any danger that personal data could be hacked or lost, or confidentiality breached?

It may seem odd for tech start-ups and developers to look beyond the coolness of their technology (or the possibility of selling it for millions later in its development). However, in a world dominated by social media, the consequences of being a jerk can be fatal to your company’s success, no matter how innovative your product. So think first – and run it past a senior citizen just to be sure.

“Technology has exceeded our humanity” (Photo credit: Toban B.)

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