You know the old saying about trust … “It takes years to build and seconds to destroy.”
And once destroyed it is very difficult if not impossible to repair. You need to be the guardian of your own reputation. You need to constantly ask yourself whether your actions in rapidly scaling an online community are worth the potential downsides of destroying trust amongst your users.
I talk about this often with startups in which I’m involved. For example, I have had rigorous debates about the need to crack down on explicit online content – even in the face of lower growth.
My arguments aren’t from a prudish perspective – I’m an ardent believer in free speech – but from a practical one. There are some communities in which “anything goes” is the norm (think Reddit) and others where a zero tolerance approach is required (Disney).
Another fine line companies are skating is with how much user information they make publicly available. Tred this line carefully. We all remember the brushback Facebook had when they launched Beacon.
For those with shorter memories what Beacon did was publish your actions and purchases into an open stream. And famously one person reportedly bought an engagement ring and his soon-to-be fiancée discovered this inadvertently through an automatic posting. The guy was understandably pissed off. And Facebook quickly withdrew Beacon.
Were Facebook not already on a path to becoming a dominant part of the web, this crossing of the trust barrier might have dealt an existential blow. And luckily Facebook handled this fiasco well. Mark Zuckerberg made a very public mea culpa that was well received (including with this writer).
Facebook is back in the fray on the privacy issue but this time it is more about how user information is displayed by third parties. I’ve often had the debate about Facebook Open Graph and what is appropriate to post in it. If you’re a developer you ought to be asking yourself the question
“If my user discovered that their actions were being auto posted into the FB timeline, would they be embarrassed? Would they be angry? Does it risk disclosing sensitive information that could affect their relationships?”
If you’re on the wrong side of this line you are risking the reputation of your company. My own view is that for most services it is explicit actions (likes, shares, vote ups, etc.) that are always fair play. You know when you’re voting on something online that your vote is likely to be public.
But implicit actions are much more of a gray area. I guess it’s now the norm to allow the music I listen to on Spotify to be published to my friend (I swear it was my kids using my computer to listen to Neil Diamond guys ;-)). But many implicit actions are NOT fair play. What websites one visits, what pictures they look at, whose FB page they checking out – are not fair game in a world where you care about trust.
Which brings me to Quora. I’m a big fan of what they’ve built. And I have been for ages. In fact, I weighed in on the topic more than 2 years ago in this post.
But lately I’m feeling a little burned like they’ve crossed my trust line (and once crossed it’s so hard to trust again).
I read this story on Ivan Kirigin’s blog that shows that Quora was posting which articles you’re reading to other people without your consent. You can turn it off, but they defaulted it to an on setting to drive more adoption of the product.
Kudos to Ivan for speaking up, which is hard to do when you’re dealing with “hot” companies backed by serious investors. I even had some reservations about writing this blog post this because I have no desire to piss off other investors or great entrepreneurs. But this action is so important for startups to understand that it warrants my risking that.
You may already know all this since it occurred a couple of weeks ago and was already in the press.
As Ivan points out, what if somebody was researching “How to come out to my parents” or “how to cope with cancer” or anything similar. None of this would be ok to share with friends without your consent. It’s not a good sign to me that somebody inside Quora didn’t consider this before launching the feature.
I get why posting “what I’m reading” would drive more content consumption. But is that worth it if it means that people no longer trust reading Quora articles for fear of being outed? Would it be okay to publish which companies I’m reading about for homework on an investment? No. Of course not.
It’s funny timing for me personally. I almost never read anything on Quora but tech, startup and funding articles. But I found myself thumbing around articles that were in my feed last week. I actually enjoyed it. I was reading about what to do if you hear gunshots (drop to the ground, apparently, and don’t run), what is it like growing up in a crime family (less glamorous than it seems on TV) and what are the side effects of Rogaine (which – along with Grecian Formula – I obviously don’t use).
To be clear – NOT OKAY to tell other people I read these unless I explicitly allow it by sharing, commenting or voting.
It seems they’ve now realized they went too far with an “opt out” because they have slightly altered their position.
But there is that pesky little thing called trust to deal with. I personally can’t imagine now reading any article on Quora that I am concerned how it would look in public. Even if harmless. They crossed this line once without telling me. I feel I now need “Quora incognito” to feel 100% safe.
My advice to startups – safeguard your users implicit actions religiously and with it you’ll be safeguarding your brand and reputation.
What do you think? Did they cross the line? Was their “mea culpa” strong enough?
What similar decisions have you had to make and how did you decide?