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Is the Way You're Using Technology Hijacking Your Attendees' Minds?

Tristan Harris, a former Google design ethicist and magician, blew my mind a little with this article on Medium on how technology is being used to influence our decisions without us even realizing it. And as I was reading, I couldn’t help but think how people in the meetings industry are exploiting those same mental vulnerabilities every day with our event websites and social media outreach—and we too may not even realize that is in fact what we’re doing.

Take his Hijack #1—controlling the menu means you control the choices. He uses the example of people who want to continue to have a conversation who take to Yelp to find a place to go. Yelp obligingly pops out a list of nearby bars. He writes:

“It’s not that bars aren’t a good choice, it’s that Yelp substituted the group’s original question (“where can we go to keep talking?”) with a different question (“what’s a bar with good photos of cocktails?”) all by shaping the menu.”

While this is nothing new—what is a meeting agenda but a menu?—but today’s event tech does take it up a notch. We’ve always been hijacking attendees’ minds by controlling the available content at the meeting. Not that it’s a bad thing to offer an array of what your research shows is the menu of choices your participants are interested in, but we should be very mindful of what we’re not putting on that agenda, and why, and, to paraphrase one of Harris’s questions, “is the agenda empowering for your participants’ original needs, or are the choices actually a distraction?”

But to take it to the technology level, think about how your meeting app also offers a kind of menu that shapes what participants are supposed to find important or empowering. What someone actually finds fascinating about the keynote can become what everyone else is tweeting about it, and the schedule of events pretty much never includes what participants almost always say is the best part of every meeting, those hallway conversations. Does your app replace making connections with people they may find interesting with making appointments with sponsors and exhibitors who have paid to meet them? How are you shaping, and perhaps narrowing, people’s perceptions about your meeting through your app menu?

None of this is necessarily wrong, but these decisions should be made deliberately and with a lot of forethought. You are shaping your participants’ experience by what you include on your app (and what you exclude), whether you acknowledge it or not—or even think about it. Are you controlling the participant experience, or is the list of features your app provider offers actually doing the controlling? It’s worth thinking about.

And that’s just his first hijack—Harris lists nine more, and they are all things that we perpetuate as event technology providers and things that are affecting us as human beings that we may not be aware of.

Some are regular marketing practices pretty much everyone uses, such as Hijack #3, the Fear of Missing Something Important (FOMSI)—don’t delete that app post-meeting, folks, because we’re going to send out some valuable post-con info that you won’t want to miss, for example. Again, not necessarily a bad thing, but we have to be very careful not to abuse it. As Harris says, “Imagine if tech companies recognized that, and helped us proactively tune our relationships with friends and businesses in terms of what we define as ‘time well spent’ for our lives, instead of in terms of what we might miss.” And for all of us who have fallen into a rabbit hole and lost hours chasing clickbait? Check out Hijack #10.

Fascinating stuff, and well worth the 12 minutes or so it takes to read.

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