On Creepiness

As a species we’ve become increasingly proficient at acquiring and storing data. This elevated access and recall allows for the creation of companies both on and offline that appear to be omniscient. This power can be interpreted as “creepy” or even “magic”.

Levels of acceptable creepiness are quite nebulous any vary from person to person. One person’s Beacon (moderately creepy, in my opinion) might be another person’s Wifi snooping (not so creepy).

Three factors that appear to strongly influence the creepy level are:

  • How the data was obtained
  • How the data will be used
  • Comprehension of what access and recall to the data might enable
While the first two factors are important, the third is key.

A case in point

Waze, a community-based traffic and navigation application uses social driving data sourced from its users to help avoid traffic and report road issues along your drive. Is this creepy? I argue it depends on how much you know about the system. If I told you there was an app that always knew where you were, you might think that was creepy. If I told you there was an app like Google Maps that made it so you never get stuck in traffic again, you might think that was magical. If you knew how the app performed this bit of magic, you might not be phased at all.

At my previous company, Hunch, we used hundreds of billions of preferences (likes, tweets, reviews, demographic data, etc.) collected from across the internet and woven into a Taste Graph to predict user behavior. When explaining how the system works I observed people would go through similar phases – creeped out, then nonplussed, and finally in acceptance. It is important to note that during the explanation only the person’s perception changed; our data collection methods and uses remained constant. Given this fact, I believe comprehension and ultimately end-user knowledge determines what gives them the creeps.