Tuesday, April 19, 2005


the calculus of burden shifting

Whose time is more valuable, yours or someone else's? That's the central question when it comes to shifting the burden from one party to another. The classic example is self service: companies get their customers to do some of the work themselves, such as filling in details, having them find information that might have otherwise been supplied by a salesperson, or making the user assemble an item that could have been assembled by the company. Now individuals are taking up the trend, making others deal with solving their problems.

Today I got an email from someone I've never met, asking me to help sort out her dislike of spam. Actually, it wasn't really a personal request, which I might be inclined to want to respond to. Instead, the email was automatically generated by a website, a proxy for this person. I had joined a list-serv, and had sent an email to the group. My new correspondent, who I do not know personnally, also belonged to the list-serv group. But she used a service called "knowspam.net," which prevents email from reaching her unless it is from a known party. I was an unknown party, so I get an email asking me to visit "knowspam.net" and enter a code to verify I'm not a spammer. It wasn't a very friendly welcome, being guilty of being a spammer until I prove otherwise.

Of course spam is nothing more than automatically generated unsolicited email, so I might be inclined to consider the "knowspam.net" message as spam myself. I visited the knowspam site, and entered the code. I was curious what was involved, and also wondered if I would always received "knowspam.net" spam each time I emailed the list if I didn't nip this problem now. It was annoying to have to interupt what I was doing (I was trying to read my inbox) to sort out someone else's preferences (I had to visit a website, read a page of instructions, and enter a code and submit it). What makes the receiver's time not wanting to sort through an inbox more valuable than the sender's time, especially when the reciever had choosen to sign up to receiving messages from a list-serv group?

Businesses that shift burdens to users generally offer some incentive, be it cheaper prices or added convenience, such as do it yourself because it is faster. Individuals that shift burdens can only rely on goodwill. If the relationship tie is weak, or the rationale not compelling, I can't see that asking strangers to give up their time to make your live easier is going to work.

Ironic timing for your post, because knowspam announced yesterday that they would be shutting down in June, and this fact has been flowing through the blogosphere steadily since then - raising my awareness of knowspam from near zero...
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