Aug 16 2012

The Apple Social Psychology Experiment

Actually it wasn’t as much an experiment as a demonstration. Lukasz Lindell recounts on his blog how he and his coworkers threw a little bit of innuendo into the internet stream to see where it led.

One afternoon we sketched out a screw in our 3D program, a very strange screw where the head was neither a star, tracks, pentalobe or whatever, but a unique form, also very impractical. We rendered the image, put it in an email, sent it to ourselves, took a picture of the screen with the mail and anonymously uploaded the image to the forum Reddit with the text ”A friend took a photo a while ago at that fruit company, they are obviously even creating their own screws ”.

It didn’t take long for the internet to respond. Articles and blogs started appearing with headlines such as, “Apple May Be Working On A Top Secret Asymmetric Screw To Lock You Out Of Your Devices Forever.”

The picture that Lindell and his friends created was just a regular screw with a strange top, as described above. I’m not sure how this turned into an “asymmetrical screw.” I’m not sure that even exists – I assume that means the screw can tighten but then not be loosened, so you cannot open up a case closed with such a screw. There is nothing in the diagram that suggests this.

The idea is also odd. There are ways to close a case so that it cannot be opened without inventing a new type of screw. Just rivet the things closed.

The more interesting thing about this little prank is how people responded. Lindell also reports that 90% of comments following reports of the asymmetrical screw believed it entirely, while only 10% expressed skepticism. Also, the farther away from the original source the piece was the greater the percentage of believers over skeptics.

There are a few potential lessons in this episode. The first is how such stories arise in the first place. The trigger was certainly provocative, but it was also vague. The details that were added (apparently just invented) were those that made the story popular, and I think that this is because those details fit an existing narrative.

That narrative is that Apple (and large corporations in general) is a huge megalomaniacal company that tries to control its products and the market at all costs. There is some truth to this – why can’t I open up my iPod and change the battery? There is a bit of contention between consumers and Apple over such things, and consumers generally feel helpless and at the mercy of a large company. Perhaps this helplessness is magnified by the fact that Apple products are awesome and we have to have them.

This narrative is already out there. So when Lindell tossed a little pebble into that pond it was quickly consumed by the existing narrative. This also made the story that much more believable (until you actually think about it for awhile) and compelling.

I think this is part of a larger phenomenon. In an interview I did with Christopher Hitchens (available here) he commented that he does not get any of his news from other reporters. Generally reporters are working off an existing narrative, and then they fit whatever facts come their way into this narrative, rather than actually investigating and finding the real story. The narrative is that Mother Theresa is a saintly woman, therefore that is the story that everyone tells, regardless of the truth.

The internet, blogs, Twitter, etc. just make that process faster and more democratic. Everyone, now, gets to pass along rumors that fit their existing narrative.

The other, more obvious, lesson is that you can’t believe everything you read on the internet. Just because something is claimed in a headline, and repeated dozens of times, does not make it true, or even truthy. It could have been entirely fabricated. This is nothing new – the rumors and gossip of the village square. It’s just bigger and faster with the internet.

Of course, I am repeating a story I read on someone else’s blog because it fits my skeptical narrative. Take that for what it’s worth.

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