Love and forgiveness in Silicon Valley


(alternatively titled: Fear and Loathing in Las Appulous)

It’s Valentine’s Day, so it feels particularly appropriate to discuss the topic of love, as it applies to software. “Love and software?” you might ask, “What the F do those things have to do with one another?”

A lot, it turns out.

As our world becomes increasingly software-driven, we all are faced with dozens, if not hundreds, of software interactions every day. This reliance upon software necessarily leads to the act of discernment. We say to ourselves “this software is bad” a lot,  “this software is good” occasionally and, when presented with brilliance, “what software? I never noticed.”

From a technical standpoint, most software is replaceable, the functionality achievable in a number of ways, all leading to the same technical outcome. However, in practice, the interaction between software and the people who rely upon it is a huge determinant on whether software becomes Google or Alta Vista.

When humans interact with software, emotions become involved. Most of the time, the emotions are bland, minimal and fleeting. However, there are times when the emotions that are tapped are visceral and lasting.

Like when we feel like our privacy has been invaded.

Which brings us to Path and the “address book mess”

Over the past week, Path has gotten raked over the coals for not disclosing that they were uploading the entirety of your address book to their servers. The lack of disclosure was particularly alarming for many folks who saw in Path’s actions the echoes of the “ask for forgiveness, rather than permission” style of behavior that has propelled other companies, like Facebook, to the upper echelon of user engagement.

It all started with Arun’s post, where he shared his discovery. Path, to its credit, quickly responded by apologizing and deleting all of the data, but that wasn’t nearly enough for the press.

In short order, Nick Bilton weighed in on the recurring apologies of Silicon Valley, Michael Arrington and MG Siegler got into the mix and Dan Lyons dropped the bomb of an accusation that the shady research payouts of the early 2000’s have migrated to the tech blogs of today.

Now we’re finding out that many more apps have been guilty of this behavior and we’re sure that the list already uncovered isn’t close to comprehensive. To add even more complexity to the issue, we find that Apple has been allowing the sharing of address book and photo data, unprompted, despite previous statements indicating this would never happen.

We ask: What about the customers?

Lost in all of this mess has been the conversation about what really matters: what’s the impact on Path’s business of this mistake?

Arrington rightly pointed out that the unequivocal apology is the path of least resistance and the approach that seems to most often quell the mob mentality of bloggers etc.

Who cares if the bloggers have moved on however, if the people who were behind the downloads of Path have been forever scarred? If loyalty has been irrevocably damaged and won’t be restored?

In today’s fast-moving, “pushing-the-edge”, “maybe privacy is dead maybe it’s not” environment, the guiding principle seems to be “we have to do this because if we don’t we won’t grow fast enough”. That approach might have worked for Facebook, it might be fine for Path, but is it right for everyone? Can every app and startup afford to push the boundary and just apologize when they get caught being abusive?

We won’t know the extent of the lasting damage of this situation on Path’s brand and business for a while, but we have a good way of evaluating Path’s ability to weather the storm with the actual people using the app. Moreover, we find this benchmark to be true of every company designing for consumers in the modern day:

How many of your customers love you?

If Path has managed to earn a loyal group of app customers up until this point and a meaningful portion of them (let’s say  20%+) have really come to LOVE Path, we think the lasting impact of this snafu will be but a blip on the radar. The reason is this: customer loyalty is more emotional than logical. So, if Path has managed to strike an emotional chord with a meaningful portion of its customer base, then they’re good.

If they haven’t really resonated with their audience and connected on an emotional level however, the road forward will be a lot tougher going. The reputational damage and the impact of the noise in the media is more than enough for most casual app users to toss away their connection with the app. In a noisy world, why spend your time and risk your privacy for something that you weren’t that into to begin with?

Ignore the noise, focus on the LOVE.

Regardless of if sharing address books or personal data was the right thing to do, all innovators would be well-served by framing their decisions in the light of love:

  • Will this feature make my service so easy to use that they love me?
  • If I do this will it ever result in breaking their trust and weaken their love?
  • Would a company I loved do this to me?

We think there’s a lot more to building great companies than pushing features and getting numbers. We think great companies are great because their customers love them, often for life. We hope we’re building that kind of a company, are you?

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Robi Ganguly
Updated: June 28th, 2013 3:22 pm
  • Christopher O’Connell


    As usual a great blog post. You’re quite right, that in the rush of implementing a feature that you know is technically feasible, it’s hard to stop and ask “is this ethically feasible”.

    I also love the comment that the best software is that which you don’t even notice. A high bar, certainly, but nonetheless a worthy goal.

    • Robi Ganguly

      Thanks Chris! Setting a high bar is what it’s all about :). If you’re going to pour your time and effort into something, why not try to make it as awesome as possible?