Benny and his friend Griffin at Ocean Beach in San Francisco.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Opting Out of Life

I’ve got a new part-time job these days — opting out.

I opt out of daily emails, I opt out of telephone listings, I opt out of ad-targeting and personal-info sharing. It seems like every week somebody is presenting me with something nobody in their right mind would want (piles of junk mail, anyone?) and giving me the option to opt out.

Unfortunately for me, the procedure to opt out is rarely optimal. In fact, I would suspect that these companies design these processes so the maximum number of people never reach the Holy Grail of Opt-Outedness. They probably have studies and everything.

1) Put opt-out option in tiny type in the back of a pamphlet or in a letter that looks like an ad for DHL.
2) Couch the opt-out option in convoluted language.
3) Direct customers to overloaded 1-800 number, include an address to write to (but no form or envelope) or require a tortuous trip through the company’s web site.
4) If by some miracle a customer does reach a customer service rep or actually mail off a letter, ignore them.

Not that I’m bitter, but I just spent a good hour last weekend writing letters to four credit card companies so I can “opt out” of their giant APR hikes. I know some opt outs are actually a good thing; if I no longer want to receive Cute Kitten of the Day emails, I can opt out. This is okay. This is a mutually beneficial relationship with escape hatches on both sides.

But in most instances, offering opt-outs is not an act of respect, consideration or cooperation. It’s a power move, a bullying tactic. Somebody wants to do something to you, such as sell your information or raise your APR. Because of legal or PR concerns, they have to give you the option of opting out. So they craft it in a way so the opting out is easy to miss, forcing you to be hyper-vigilant about every communication you get from them. They are betting you are too busy/tired/stressed or all three to meet their opting-out requirements. This is not operating in good faith.

I can only imagine what would happen if I tried such tactics in my own relationships. I suppose I could leave a message like this on Ron’s cell phone:

“Hi dear, I’m planning to serve raw meat and unwashed vegetables for dinner tonight. If you’d like a cooked dinner, please call 1-800-HUNGRYS before 3 P.M. today. Please have your 20-digit meal account number handy.”

Given Ron's frantically busy schedule, there’s only a 50 percent chance he’d have the time to call to request a cooked dinner. But if he balks at eating hard broccoli and raw hamburger, I can say, “You had the chance to opt out!”

Or maybe I could send my editor an email like this:


Date: April 20 at 5:33 P.M.
Subject: Trivial email-not worth your time

Dear Sir or Madam:

I am scheduled to complete the 40-page, exhaustively researched project “The Bay Area’s Most Exciting Business Plans” by May 29. Upon consideration I feel the best professional action I could take at this time would be to refrain from any type of planning, researching, assigning or editing of the subsequent project and pursue other courses of action, namely, the writing of long, whiny blog posts. If you would prefer that I thoroughly and competently complete the project, including the marathon sessions with FileMaker Pro software, please write me at 1234 Befuddle St., San Francisco, CA, to be received by April 21 at 6:33 A.M.

My supervisor only gets about 200,000 emails a day. If he dares complain when I blow the May 29 deadline, I can say triumphantly, “You had a chance to opt out of a uncompleted project! Let’s put pictures of cute kittens on the blank pages! I have a bunch in my email inbox!”

Sounds great.

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