ScienceSkepticism

So Long WaMu, and Thanks for the Clever ATMs

The collapse of America’s financial markets continues apace, and today I discovered that Washington Mutual is gone. I could appreciate the trouble brought on by the loss of Lehman Brothers et al, but this one is particularly sad for me — not because it’s the largest bank failure in US history, but because I once banked with WaMu and loved that their ATMs said things like, “I’m sorry, it looks like I’m all out of money (it’s been a tough day).” Seriously, they said that. I guess they’re all saying that now.

My emotional connection to this faceless corporation went relatively unexplored for a long time, but recently I read the book Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely. He’s very good at exploring the rational explanation for why we do irrational things, and one chapter of his book specifically deals with how we separate social norms from market norms. His first example is to describe what might happen if you were to offer your mother-in-law $100 for the lavish Thanksgiving dinner she just served. She’d probably be insulted, because you brought money into a relationship that had previously been solely familial.

Ariely goes on to describe how many corporations attempt to capitalize on social relationships with consumers, hoping that this will create more dedicated customers. The problem is that once they form those social bonds, like with ATMs that chat with you about their day, you feel much angrier or more disappointed when they let you down.

It reminds me of some of the feedback I get from Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe listeners. I’d guess that 99% is positive or neutral, and a lot of those emails involve people saying they like the show because it’s as if they’re hanging out with friends who happen to be discussing their favorite topics. That social connection, combined with the fact that the show is provided free of charge, might explain the 1% of emails that are negative.

The negative emails don’t just offer corrections to things we might have said or suggestions for show improvements (I consider both those to be positive or neutral contributions). No, the negative emails are downright angry — angry that we’ve fallen for Republican rhetoric (9/11 conspiracy theorists), Democrat rhetoric (global warming deniers), or big Pharma (anti-vaccination proponents), or angry that we’ve made a comment that is misinterpreted as bigoted, which happened recently on the SGU Forum. Sometimes they’re just angry that we haven’t spent as much time on a particular topic they’re interested in, or angry that we’re having too much fun and being too snarky. Whatever the cause, the emails are usually just dripping with bile.

I used to occasionally respond to these volleys with the argument that we do the best we can for a show that we offer for absolutely free. The show takes hours of work each week, but we do it and ask nothing in return from our audience. The forum, where many over-the-top complaints and insults have been posted, is also provided for free. It took me awhile to realize that that argument just did not register at all.

After reading Predictably Irrational, I have a very interesting new what-if: what if ironically, providing these things for free is the cause of (or main contributor to) those complaints? Ariely’s research showed that market-driven relationships were much more quickly forged and broken, while social relationships took much longer to establish and had more complex roots. By building a social relationship with listeners, we are risking the harsh backlash associated with perceived violations of the social contract, like when a listener suddenly feels betrayed. Were our relationship to be purely financial, that listener would simply stop paying for the service and get on with his life, instead of getting fired up and blasting off some (possibly premature and misguided) insults.

All of which is just to say: we should totally start charging for the podcast. (Kidding!)

This post went longer than I thought when I started it, so COTW will go up later!

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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18 Comments

  1. I’ve listened to over a hundred SGU podcasts, and I have never written in, because you haven’t made me mad yet. On the contrary, I’ve really been enjoying it. But I’ve got a hair-trigger offensiveness meter that’s just waiting for one slip-up. Then the flames will begin.

    But the uncut episode, which I paid for—I would never complain about that episode. That’s purely business (and dirty limericks).

    OK, I’m done rambling now.

  2. If you charge you will be probably cut down 90% of the complaints, but you will lose audience that is not predisposed to your message. That would be sad.

    So buck up and know that the complaints are evidence of the good you are doing.

    Thanks again!

  3. RE: WaMu We used to bank with WaMu and then moved several thousand miles away. Some five years later, we still get weekly invitations to obtain re-financing (we own our home outright) and credit cards. Maybe it will finally stop!

    RE: The One Percent. What! You deign to hold and express a viewpoint that differs from mine? How dare you post such nastiness without clearing it with me first? (I guess I’m amazed that it is only one percent.)

  4. Rebecca, I can’t believe you’re swallowing Dan Ariely’s lies! I expected more from you than to buy into this obvious conspiracy!

    The only option for me now is to never ever listen to your free podcast again because I slightly disagree with something you said once. Of all the nerve.

  5. My only complaint is the airplane flyover noise at the beginning of 5×5 could be louder and more annoying only if it was an actual jet flying five feet over my head.

    Other than that… rock on.

  6. I read Predictably Irrational in an independent study on behavioral economics – those guys are finding some pretty cool stuff. Nonetheless, I was more than happy to pay the whopping $1.99 for the Chris Hitchens uncut interview – it was worth every penny and I don’t hate SGU for exploiting my willingness to pay.

    ‘a retarded girl from France…’

  7. People will always find ways to complain. The odd thing is how loudly people complain about things that are free. If you ever feel bad about any of the vitriol you get as a result of the podcast, spend some time on the Ubuntu Linux support forums.

    People get amazingly angry and insist that something should be perfect, and then get really upset when they’re reminded that (a)most of the software is developed for free as a hobby, and (b)they’re free to contribute actual improvements and bug reports. Entitlement is a weird thing.

    Speaking of contributing: SGU is (and should be, IMO) free… but don’t you think there should be a convenient way to donate? I think most of the subscribers realize the effort and time it takes to produce a show, and at least some would be willing to send in a few dollars from time to time.

    I strongly suggest that such a fund could be used to get the producers and personalities extremely drunk, and to capture and distribute video and audio of it. ;-)

  8. Add this to the list of positive feedback: You’re doing well. A show with no complaints is a show with no listeners. A person is far more likely to respond to something they dislike with a complaint than to something the do like with praise, so that should let you know just how many of your listeners really enjoy the show every week. Keep on rocking, and we’ll keep on listening.

  9. The idea sounds rational – that if we were paying for the podcast and forums, then if we didn’t like what you said, we’d just stop paying and leave, however, I think the bitter bile would increase. Added to the regular silly and mis-guided bile and rage, people would be experiencing righteous (in their mind) outrage that you expect them to pay for that nonsense.

    Sometimes the correct way to look at a problem (if it is one) is not to ask how it could be made better, but to ask if it could be worse. If the answer is yes, then just live with it.

    1% of raging madmen lunatics isn’t so bad.

  10. @Ziggy66: Sadly, I’m sure JPMorgan (the new owners of WaMu) would not be too happy if you decided to not pay your bill. So I suppose the answer to your intentionally silly question (not meaning that as an insult, merely an observation based on the fact that you followed the comment with a wink suggesting that you realize that yes indeed there will be someone trying to collect, to which I am adding an even sillier comment that states what you already obviously know, but due to the fact that I am slightly bored and possibly tired or something, I have decided to respond to anyway) is yes.

  11. @Kimbo Jones: and @msd: Am I the only one here that doesn’t mind the airplane sound at the beginning of 5×5? Am I the only person here willing to come to the defense of the opening music to say that while it certainly is not as cool as the music that starts the Skeptics Guide or many of the other podcasts with intro music that I listen to, I kind of enjoy it and have come to associate the music with a nice, short dose of skepticism once a week? Well, am I?

  12. @killyosaur: You misunderstand, it’s not that I dislike the airplane sound, exactly. It’s that the sonic pressure has crushed my skull.

    I mean, if it were just a hundred thousand times quieter, it would be pleasant.

  13. No, the negative emails are downright angry — angry that we’ve fallen for Republican rhetoric (9/11 conspiracy theorists), Democrat rhetoric (global warming deniers), or big Pharma (anti-vaccination proponents), or angry that we’ve made a comment that is misinterpreted as bigoted, which happened recently on the SGU Forum.

    Science is not based on what we want to believe, but what can be supported by the scientific method and the physical and chemical laws it supports. So it doesn’t matter whether you are Democrats, Republicans, or own a drug company. If your methodology is right, so will be your conclusions. And getting angry about science not supporting what you want to believe won’t make one bit of difference.

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