It is probably my least favorite information-age experience. I’ve clicked through to an article and I’m reading the first few sentences. Then, for a few seconds it seems like my computer is crashing. My ability to scroll down is taken away, the screen goes grey, and a pop-up text box appears, asking me to sign up for more articles like this one that I have not yet been allowed to read.
Sometimes they also offer a free ebook, given that obviously I’m such a fan already that I can’t wait to read more, as well as tell them how to contact me.
Everyone hates these things, so why would anyone use them? It seems like using a pop-up box to collect emails is about as smart a business move as flinging a pie at the head of every customer who enters your restaurant, asking if they’d like to try the key lime after their entree, which they may only receive once they order the dessert that’s presently hanging off their face.
Well, these sites do it because it works, by which I mean it increases weekly newsletter signups. For the online marketer—and anyone making a living online is an online marketer of some sort—income generally scales with the size of the mailing list.
If I ever add popups to this site you should shoot me. I can’t imagine I would ever be tempted, but I can see how an otherwise good person could succumb to it. Implementing them will almost always give a site owner a higher income, which is something human beings are not accustomed to saying no to.
However, the coldly pragmatic business philosophy behind implementing pop-ups on your website also inevitably results in mass extinction, global warming and a general creeping apocalypse. The connection might not be obvious so I’ll explain.
Growth creates distance, distance creates coldness
As universally off-putting as pop-ups are, imagine how difficult it is to say “Well, not really” to the question, “Do I want to increase my income?” when you know you wouldn’t exactly be stepping over corpses to do it.
With pop-ups, everybody’s doing it, so it must be worthwhile even if it feels gross at first. And so a tradeoff is made: do something slightly, but not grievously, against your conscience, receive a pay raise, and it won’t bother you for long.
And thus is the beginning of the long but straight slide to the end of decency and the poisoning of our oceans. As hard as it is for a solo entrepreneur to decline a guaranteed raise over a point of conscience, for larger companies it’s much harder, perhaps even impossible.
As a business scales up, two related things happen: the individuals making the decisions become more divorced from the effects those decisions have on people and the planet, and the less responsible any particular person in the company feels for those effects.
Let’s say Super-Mega-Mart does a study and finds it can reduce annual shoplifting losses by $200 million, and all they have to do is treat all their customers like suspected thieves by hiring a “greeter” at each store to tape people’s shopping bags shut when they walk in. Everyone hates it, it punishes many times more loyal customers than actual thieves, but it doesn’t matter because it works.
Now, a solo entrepreneur might have the moral wherewithal to say no to an additional $10,000 a year (a much larger proportion of their income than Super-Mega-Mart’s 200 million is to theirs) if it saves their audience from a degraded experience. But no CEO from a public company can really say no to a 200 million dollar gain, even when the company’s annual profit is $15 billion, except one who won’t be CEO for long.
American Airlines famously bumped up profits by $40,000 a year by removing one olive from each first-class salad. Northwest reportedly saved ten times as much by cutting their cocktail limes into sixteen slices instead of ten. Some corporate policymaker becomes a hero and ensures his job security, and each customer’s flying experience gets slightly shittier and more demeaning, and no less expensive. You can imagine where this goes when everybody’s doing it, and they are.
Only individuals can have a conscience
This is why large companies can’t really have a conscience. I don’t mean that they’re wantonly evil necessarily, that they hurt kittens for fun or burn forests for no reason. But their actions cannot be tempered by a conscience the way an individual’s can. A conscience is something that only exists in a single person, and can maybe be aligned between four or five people. Even that is tough—ask your startup-culture friends, or anyone in a band.
In a big public company, nobody has to personally bear the responsibility for wrecking an ecosystem, or anything else, because it’s not a person making moral decisions, it’s an organization making pragmatic ones. The CEO is beholden to the board of directors, the board of directors is beholden to shareholders, the shareholders are beholden to their own families’ finances, and nobody in that all-destroying pyramid has the power not to go ahead with whatever works for the bottom line. All any conscientious individual can do is opt out, lose their income, and be replaced by someone without the same reservations.
And so even though big, steamrolling corporations are staffed mostly by people with real consciences and real human values, they find it almost impossible to say no to pop-up boxes, tax havens, or any other practice that makes the world a patently worse place yet is certain to increase their margins.
So my plea to prospective pop-up implementers is this. You are at a fork in the road. Say no to this kind of cold, pragmatic scheme while you’re still able to. Save the oceans, and grow a smaller but more dedicated list. All those strategies that make you feel bad even though they work—as you grow, they will only work better, and make you feel less bad. And that’s not good.
Capitalism has a lot of great benefits, but it sure does a spectacular job at removing the influence of a conscience on a business. I’m not suggesting we overthrow the system, at least not yet, only that we inject a little self-scrutiny into it on the ground floor. Let me read your article before you put your hand out.