internet_monsterIn our effort to hack everything, few people ever consider how their tactics erode trust and what that means for the future. In order for people to work together, whether in a company, a market system, or an entire economy, we must have trust in the players that make up the ecosystem. When we eat at a restaurant, we have to trust that the food won’t be poisoned. When we buy a shirt, we have to trust that the shirt is reasonably well made. When we lose that trust, all the players with whom we are required to interact with become suspect and the entire system comes into question.

As more and more websites deploy deceptive user interfaces as a means to capture users and generate sales, I worry we are jeopardizing the trust level of the entire Internet.

I was recently browsing DarkPatterns.org, a site the purpose of which is to spread awareness about websites designed with manipulative UIs, and I noticed a number of supposedly reputable brands such as Orbitz and Audible with questionable user interface traps. I started to wonder if the Internet was moving toward becoming a “no trust zone” where people will become hesitant to engage, operating with a kind of ghetto level of caveat emptor. Could the Web become something people feel they have to use but wish it was better and safer? I thought about my own behavior and how I refuse to try new apps until they are massively popular out of fear that the app is shady and figured I couldn’t be the only person who is already leery of supposedly legitimate players on the Web.

I called Harry Brignull, the curator of DarkPatterns, and asked him where he thought we were headed. He said as more people felt manipulated by distrustful sites, there would be an opportunity for more trustworthy alternatives. He pointed out that App.net exists because Twitter kept changing its API rules, and StackOverflow was a more legitimate response to Experts-Exchange.

When I asked him about Facebook as a platform for a more secure Internet experience, the idea of a safer, closed internet started to breakdown. I pointed out that Facebook is in a perfect position to provide a safe haven from all the deceptive UIs, but Harry described Facebook’s own UI tactics as, “like a toddler pushing your limits to see where we’ll break.” The problem of course is that Facebook is one of the worst offenders when it comes to deceptive privacy settings, not to mention they make it almost impossible to close our accounts. Trading the open Web with its multitude of manipulative UI tactics for Facebook is like trading one devil for another.

Companies deploying manipulative user interfaces risk tainting the pot for everyone by turning the Internet into something people dread. Ten years ago the Federal Trade Commission opened the National Do Not Call Registry to curb telemarketers who had succeeded in changing the telephone from one of the greatest communication tools ever invented into a tool for annoying salespeople to interrupt us at all hours. While deceptive UIs and manipulative websites don’t interrupt us while we’re eating dinner, they do have the similar effect of making us wary. If these trends continue, it’s not unreasonable to think that many people will begin to distrust the internet as a whole, making it much harder for new companies to gain traction, as users flock to the perceived safety of reputable properties such as Amazon and Google.

For the foreseeable future, it appears we will continue further down the path of deceptive UIs. Companies, especially startups, in search of user growth and sales will continue to push the limits of trapping visitors by whatever means necessary under the guise of effective design and “growth hacking” until users revolt.

But the backlash won’t be a loud protest or an en masse departure from a single website. Instead, each deceptive trick will fuel a silent, creeping decline of trust that makes us leery of all online practices. And that affects us all.

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]