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Society - Written by on Wednesday, March 17, 2010 9:45 - 0 Comments

Tim Bevins
On unintended consequences

Noted: According an interesting piece by McKinsey on the new Japanese consumer, big-box discounters outside Tokyo and retailers such as Costco and Ikea are benefitting significantly from a March 2009 decision by the Japanese government to reduce the maximum freeway toll on weekends to ¥1,000 (about $11) regardless of the distance traveled. More people than ever are now taking advantage of the lower prices of these stores outside their local living in part because a restriction has been lifted. It’s not the only reason they are shopping there – the recession is more important – but the stores probably may never have anticipated the effect on them.

Noted: danah boyd, in her address to open SXSW this month, related the following story: “I met a teen whose abusive father was recently released from jail. Recognizing that a restraining order would not be enough protection, the teen and her mother moved thousands of miles away. As the teen began making friends in her new school, she begged for a Facebook account. Her mother caved and both the daughter and mother worked to make the account as private as possible; neither of them wanted to face the consequences of being found. In December, when Facebook changed its [default] privacy settings [to Everyone], this teen and her mother didn’t realize what the change in privacy settings meant until someone else pointed them out after the fact. Is putting her at-risk an acceptable bi-product of Facebook’s changes?” Facebook has 400 million-plus apparently satisfied users; it would be devastating to two of them if, unintentionally, the impact of the change in privacy policy had not been communicated to them.

Noted: Although this is, I imagine, precisely what Facebook is intended to do, I recently heard from someone in one of my classes when I was a middle school teacher some 39 years ago. (Gasps are acceptable.) We connected by phone and during a two-hour conversation, we caught each other up on our lives since then and on families and I heard a bit about some other people in the class. This example probably does not really belong under the title On Unintended Consequences, but I include it because it certainly was unintended from my perspective – but thoroughly enjoyable.

I only bring these unrelated examples up for one reason, and that’s to remind myself and perhaps you that for all the intentionally positive consequences of technology such as social networking, online banking, and blogging, etc., there are also unforeseen, unpredictable impacts. Online banking, for example, means I never have to enter the bank for anything, which also means I am a virtual customer as far as the bank is concerned. I live in a very small town so I do know the current bank official, but I see her no more than once a year and most often to replace a lost ATM card. If I wanted to borrow money, I might have a much harder time because, frankly, they do not know me. My wife knows all the people in her bank because she is a regular, physically present customer.

We recently refinanced our house, and, until closing, I never met or saw anyone I dealt with. Nearly everything was handled by email or cell phone or landline. But I really enjoyed the closing because a very nice, personable, and knowledgeable woman came to our home and walked us through it. She put a face on the transaction.

I think the one thing people really want in an online relationship, whether they are friends, friends of friends, one-time customers, or long-term customers is trust, and that is very hard to build virtually and very easily and quickly lost. One mistake – such as a misspelled name or inaccurate transaction – can diminish or terminate the relationship. For all the convenience, choice, and selection that online buying and selling create, the magic is that trust occurs at all. That it does – far more often than not – says something about people’s openness and about companies’ diligence and cleverness at establishing virtual relationships that matter.

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