👻 Snapchat's abusive dark patterns
Plus: 🌊The AI tsunami: creation & destruction
👋 Hi, Luiza Jarovsky here. Welcome to the 86th edition of this weekly newsletter. Thank you to 80,000+ followers on various platforms and to the paid subscribers who support my work. To read more about me, find me on social, or drop me a line: visit my personal page. For speaking engagements, fill out this form.
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👻 Snapchat's abusive dark patterns
Snapchat is an instant messaging app with 750 million monthly active users and a reported revenue of ~$1.2 billion in Q3 2023. It is highly popular among 13-24-year-olds, and according to statistics, in some countries, it has a 75% penetration in that age group.
They have a paid subscription service called Snapchat+, which costs $3,99 a month, and had more than 3 million users in April 2023. I recently learned about some of the features included, and I am appalled that they have not received any official warning from a data protection authority and have also not faced a public backlash: they are dark patterns exploiting teenagers’ vulnerabilities.
From my perspective, the FTC and EU data protection authorities should act. Here's why:
Dark Patterns in Snapchat+
Snapchat's paid subscription service was launched in July 2022, according to Insider Intelligence, “during a turbulent time for Snap, which was one of the first companies to visibly feel the effects of the struggling digital advertising market. The service was an attempt to diversify revenues beyond advertising and has had surprising success.”
So the goal was to grow and boost revenue and, à la Mark Zuckerberg, “move fast and break things.” In order to grow at high speed, they've added features that are extremely problematic, unfair, and, I would say, also abusive, especially when the majority of the users are so young (13-24 years old). These are dark patterns that exploit teenagers’ vulnerabilities.
Currently, this is the list of features a Snapchat+ subscriber gets access to:
Let's talk about some of the most problematic features and why they are exploitative:
“Tapping on the badge will show you which planet you are in their Solar System, with each planet representing a different position in their Best Friends list. For example, if your friend is the Sun and you’re Earth in their Solar System, that means you’re their third closest friend.”
So teenagers, who are already particularly vulnerable, will have access to data about their friend’s close relationships and will naturally obsess and compete over that.
First, there is the factor of teenage privacy, as their intimate friend's circle becomes available to others by default.
Second, there is the mental health aspect, as teenagers are frequently insecure and work hard to obtain social validation. Now not only will they keep being obsessed about popularity, acceptance, body image, and social media “likes” and “shares,” but on Snapchat+, they will also obsess over how close they are to people they consider friends, generating more insecurity, mental health issues, and social media addiction.
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According to Snapchat, “your Snapchat score is determined by a super-secret, special equation that combines the number of Snaps you’ve sent and received, the Stories you’ve posted, and a couple of other factors”
If you are a Snapchat+ subscriber, “you can see how much a friend’s Snapscore has changed since the last time you checked it.”
So this is another number that will increase insecurity and mental health issues among teens. They are incentivizing teens to be obsessively concerned about other friends’ [meaningless] scores and comparing them to theirs, as the feature allows the user to check how the score has increased or decreased.
According to the company, “As a Snapchat+ subscriber, you can view up to 16 best friends on your friends list. We’ll even tell you which friends have moved up or down on your list since you last checked”
In this feature, the teenager's privacy is harmed, as a user's 16 best friends will be disclosed to others by default, including how these relationships are evolving over time, as the feature shows which friends have moved up and down.
It's also another feature triggering teenagers’ obsession over social status and social acceptance, as they will be able to track how their proximity to others grew or fell throughout time.
Is it fair to use design and algorithms to push teens to obsess and compete over yet another meaningless score? I will say the answer: no, it's absolutely not fair.
Design and algorithms are powerful behavioral engineering tools, and when dealing with vulnerable populations such as kids and teens, it's extremely important to be protective and avoid causing harm, including mental health harm.
The features above should not be allowed because they profit from the exploitation of teenagers’ vulnerabilities. They are dark patterns that try to make teens obsess over silly metrics.
There is an additional argument against Snap: these features are available upon monthly payment, meaning that besides harming teen'’ mental health, the company is harming their pockets too. While users are obsessed and competing over these senseless metrics and status indicators, using Snapchat+ has become the new rule in teenagers’ social circles, and Snap profits from that.
Other privacy issues
This is not the first time that Snap has been in the spotlight for privacy issues. A quick reminder:
1. ICO vs. Snap in 2023 (“My AI” feature)
More recently, in 2023, the UK Information Commissioner (ICO) issued a preliminary enforcement notice against Snap, as it provisionally found that “Snap failed to adequately identify and assess the risks to several million ‘My AI’ users in the UK, including children aged 13 to 17.”
If you remember the news, Snapchat's AI chatbot was outputting inappropriate messages, such as when it advised a 15-year-old on how to hide the smell of alcohol and marijuana or when offering advice to a supposed 13-year-old about having sex for the first time with a partner who is 31, as reported by the Washington Post.
2. FTC vs. Snap in 2014 (Snapchat, various features)
In 2014, Snap agreed to settle FTC charges that it deceived consumers. Among the topics in this settlement were:
Snap's promise that there was no way to view an image after the time has expired, not even through screenshots (when in reality, it was possible through third-party apps and through screenshots in some devices)
Snap's statement on the collection of geolocation data and contact information
Snap's failure to secure its “find friends” feature
Moving slower and fixing dark patterns
Last week, I was reading this article about Evan Spiegel's - Snap's CEO -internal note to employees:
“Timing matters, hence the urgency, because consumer augmented reality glasses will gain momentum before the end of the decade, and this is our chance to transcend the limitations of the smartphone and provide a computing experience that is more sensational and shareable (…)"
Not so fast, Evan. First, let's please fix abusive and unfair practices.
*If you want to learn more about dark patterns and how to avoid them, join our upcoming 4-week Privacy, Tech & AI Bootcamp. There are 2 cohorts starting in February: read more about the program and register here.
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🎤 Tackling Dark Patterns & Online Manipulation in 2024
If you work in privacy, tech, design, or marketing, you CAN'T miss this upcoming live talk. Here's why:
I invited two globally acknowledged scholars - Prof. Cristiana Santos and Prof. Woodrow Hartzog - to discuss with me their perspectives on dark patterns (deceptive design), design regulation, and how industry and policymaking professionals can avoid online manipulation and help build a better internet. We'll talk about:
- The past, present, and future of dark patterns
- Laws against dark patterns and the challenges of regulating design
- Dark patterns in code
- The challenges of identifying, documenting, and curbing online manipulation
- Deepfakes, anthropomorphism, and other forms of AI-related manipulation (which I call dark patterns in AI)
*Register here so that you will: receive a notification when the session is about to start, be able to join us online and comment in the chat, and receive a recording of the session in your email to re-watch later.
A special thanks to MineOS, this live talk & podcast episode's sponsor.
I hope to see you there!
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🏢 Jobs in privacy & AI
2024 tech layoffs have already affected thousands of employees at Pixar, Audible, Discord, Google, Amazon, Twitch, Duolingo, and many more companies worldwide. If you are looking for a job or know someone who is, we have two global job boards containing hundreds of open positions and an optional weekly job alert: privacy job board & AI job board. Check them out and share. Good luck!
📚 AI Book Club: 600+ members
Interested in AI? Love reading and would like to read more? Our AI Book Club is for YOU! Here's how it works:
Every meeting lasts one hour, and 5-6 book commentators share their perspectives on the book. The goal is to have a critical and open discussion on relevant AI-related topics.
What people have told me is that this is a great incentive to read more and more attentively. This is true: there is a deadline, and other peers are reading the same book, so this is a great way to add more reading to the daily routine.
You can also take a step further and volunteer to be a commentator or commit (to yourself) to participate actively in the meeting.
The AI Book Club already has 600+ members, and below are the books we will read from January to June so that you can prepare and read them at your own pace:
- The Coming Wave, by Mustafa Suleyman. [Meeting on January 18].
- Unmasking AI, by Dr. Joy Buolamwini. [Meeting on March 14]. Be a book commentator - 2 spots left.
- The Worlds I See, by Prof. Fei-Fei Li. [Meeting on May 16]. Be a book commentator - 4 spots left
Interested? Register, invite friends, add the next meetings to your calendar, and start reading!
🦋 Privacy, Tech & AI Bootcamp: cohorts #2 and #3
You asked, we delivered: 2 additional cohorts of the Privacy, Tech & AI Bootcamp starting in February! A reminder that the Bootcamp lasts 4 weeks and includes 8 CPE credits pre-approved by the IAPP.
🎓 Privacy managers: schedule a training
600+ professionals from leading companies have attended our interactive training programs. Each of them is 90 minutes long (delivered in one or two sessions), led by me, and includes additional reading material, 1.5 CPE credits pre-approved by the IAPP, and a certificate. To book a private training for your team: contact us.
🎬 Privacy: What to Expect in 2024
Privacy professional? You CAN'T MISS last week's episode with three privacy rockstars - Odia Kagan (Fox Rothschild), Nia Cross Castelly (Checks/Google), and Gal Ringel (MineOS) - on privacy in 2024. You can find the recording of our conversation on my YouTube channel or podcast.
🌊The AI tsunami: creation & destruction
For those who had any doubt about the size, extent, and duration of the current AI wave: it is here to stay, and it is being embedded into all traditional means, tools, media, platforms, software, and channels. Nothing will be left untouched, and people will have to reinvent themselves. It's actually more like a tsunami than a wave. For those who want to thrive in the next few years, these are some of the core aspects of the AI tsunami: