Breach Of Trust

There’s a spectrum, as with all things, to the reactions people have had to Apple’s promotional gifting of U2’s new album, “Songs of Innocence.” On one end you’ll hear ridiculous, conspiracy-minded talk about how Apple has violated customer privacy by, you know, giving them a free album. On the other end you’ll hear ridiculous derision of anybody who, even upon careful reflection, finds fault with the way Apple and U2 carried out this PR stunt.

I tend to agree with Marco Arment’s take, both about it being a mistake to overlook the nuances of this situation, and that the nut of the problem, the part especially worthy of scrutiny by Apple’s fans, is the extent to which this move, and the threat of more moves like it, erodes our trust that the company has our best interests at heart.

Hold up a minute, I hear you choking on your disbelief that I could actually believe a giant corporation has my best interests at heart. I get it: to them, in the big scheme of things, I’m nothing. We’re all “nothing.” But their actions over the course of many years tell a different story. Whether they ultimately care about our interests or not, it has been a primary business practice to respect not only customer privacy, but customer primacy. It’s important to Apple that we trust them to safeguard our personal data, but it’s also important that we trust them to let us choose the desktop picture, the system beep sound, and the computer’s name. The notion that Macs, iPhones, and iPads are personalized devices runs deep in Apple’s history and remains a powerful marketing message.

So, many of the people who complained about the U2 album suddenly appearing in their “Purchased” list weren’t outraged by a petty act of gifting an album that they may or may not like. They were instead annoyed, and perhaps a little scared by the implication that Apple doesn’t respect the boundaries that separate “customer stuff” from “Apple stuff.”

I can’t help but draw a parallel between the ongoing debate about the merits of Facebook’s algorithmic timelines vs. Twitter’s (up to now) more-or-less self-curated timelines. Over the course of years, Twitter has trained customers to believe that we have control over our timelines, while Facebook has not. Does it matter in the big scheme of things if Twitter injects an ad here or there, or treats a friend’s favorited tweet as a retweet? Not really. In the same sense that it doesn’t matter much that Apple inserts an unwanted music album into your purchased list. But even a little move in a direction that threatens the primacy of users is a relatively big move for companies like Twitter or Apple, whose track records have inspired us to trust that we retain more authority over the personalization of these products than perhaps we do.