Are we doing any good?

· Design, Social Design, User Experience

image of a cathedralOne of my favorite essays published in our book is Matte Scheinker’s, called Are we building a better Internet?.

I asked Matte to write about ethics because it was a burning topic for the book and one that he and I used to kick around a bit as an oft-neglected issue in web design and development.

There are tradeoffs in customer acquisition, in growing a network, in handling privacy concerns and the related disclosures, some of which we are seeing at play right now in the controversial launch of Google Buzz, that we both felt do not always get the attention they deserve.

And yet when I speak about ethical issues and the inevitable conflicts between values and business goals and community interests and individual rights, I find that there is a hunger for seriously considering these topics. We all sense that we are “playing with people’s lives” in this work and that it matters how we do it.

Matte has a great way of easing into the trickiest questions:

Imagine for a moment what today’s design decisions will do to mold the Internet’s future. What if every product decision you made last week became a successful design meme? Would that create an Internet where you’d want your kids to play?

Sometimes we get lucky and it’s not difficult to discern the difference between right and wrong. Don’t sell user data because you’re short on beer money. Don’t keep emailing users after they unsubscribe. Don’t read user emails to find the next great stock pick. These are certainly over-simplified dilemmas, and sadly, most ethical dilemmas aren’t as clear-cut.

… but you’ll want to read the whole thing™.

(Bit by bit we are making sure all the essays are available online, either hosted on their authors’ blogs or personal websites or in some cases included in the project’s wiki, where we’re maintaining a list of essays.)