There's a Behavioral Revolution Coming. Will Mobile Apps Be Ready?

How can mindful apps be successful if the internet's primary revenue stream is advertising? originally appeared on Quora - the knowledge sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights.

Answer by David Kadavy, author of Design for Hackers, solopreneur, gentleman neuroscientist & economist, on Quora.

The way things are currently, I honestly am not sure how mindful apps can find success. Newspapers have been going out of business, and tech companies haven't deviated much from the ad-supported model. If a company isn't advertising, venture capitalists are footing the bill in the meantime. There's likely an advertising bubble, and things could get even uglier when it pops.

I think consumers' attitudes about paying for things need to change, and awareness about the effects of having your attention eroded needs to spread. Think of how much attitudes have changed about smoking, for example.

For those who are aware, the best course of action is to, as a consumer, change the economics. Buy information. Buy books, support podcasters on Patreon, or pay for high-quality magazines.

I believe there's a great opportunity for a behavioral revolution to take place. We know so much about behavior, and the biases that rule it, and technology is so ubiquitous, we could really make products and services that change people for the better.

There are some glimmers of hope in this space. Pavlok is a wristband that shocks you to break bad habits. It's gotten a ton of press, and I personally used it to quit the Facebook News Feed. I also hear that Headspace is doing very well.

These are probably the best entry points into people valuing behavior change for the better: either breaking bad habits, or mindfulness (meditation specifically, since it has gained mainstream appeal). Hopefully attitudes will change over things such as journalism, and the growing distaste of gratuitous news outlets, indicates that people may be waking up.

The scary thing is that the same powers that can be used to change behavior for the better can also be used to profitably exploit the shortcomings of the mind for worse.

I posit that there may be some hope in bootstrapped or solopreneur companies, especially ones based outside of major cities. The effects of the advertising model are exacerbated by the desire for investors to make a return. These investors are also several layers of abstraction away from those actually designing the products to do the distracting, which is a recipe for corrupted ethics. When you add in the fact that these economics boost the cost-of-living in these places, then product designers' hands are forced even further.

Self-funded startups, I believe, are more likely to operate ethically since the investor, founder, and sometimes the product designer, are all one person. If they don't have investors to please, there's less pressure to do nefarious things. This is one reason I use SendOwl for payment processing instead of Gumroad. Of course, such companies still have to compete against VC-funded startups, but their incentives free them up to do things differently.

Attitudes need to change, but given that this Seneca quote is 2,000 years old, I'm not sure how quickly they will:

"Our stupidity may be clearly proved by the fact that we hold that "buying" refers only to the objects for which we pay true it is that each man regards nothing as cheaper than himself."

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