Self-Serve Information

Self-Serve Information: Now we’re all passive aggressive. I think there are two elements at play here, for me at least.
1. RTFM. How many of us have had the RTFM experience? (Read the F* manual!) This experience encompasses incidents like asking a worker at the library to recommend a good novel and having them wave dismissively toward the fiction section (which recently happened to a friend of mine and which I have observed happening to others), or having a computer problem and being snarled at by the IT people (either you did too much trouble-shooting or not enough.) How many active Internet users have asked a question on a forum only to be directed to a generic FAQ that usually doesn’t answer the question? Asking questions is a habit that gets shut down pretty early in life– the message is sent early on that if you have an information need, you’d better take care of it yourself. “Look it up!” And how many of us have walked into a library and been pointedly ignored? When the people at the reference desk won’t make eye contact, it sends a message that you’re on your own.

2. Upselling. In my experience, sales people are aggressive, pushy, demanding, and won’t leave you alone. Once you give them an opening, they will hound you until you die. Buying a car– what you want isn’t important. They have a green car with chrome trim and 900 miles on the lot and that’s the one they want to sell you at MSRP plus mark-up, although if you had been the one to put the 900 miles on the car, it would be worth half of what they’re currently asking. And you don’t even like the chrome, which costs extra.

You tell the realtor that your price range is 150K and you want an older home and she insists on showing you brand-new 200K Stylecrap houses with rooms the size of closets or worse, trying to convince you to custom-build. (No, we didn’t buy the green Saturn Vue, and yes, we finally found a realtor who got us into our 40-year-old dream house.) Even when you’re getting your habitual soy latte, the cashier has been ordered to try to upsell you on a baked good. It doesn’t matter what you want- it matters what they want to sell you.

It’s not a partnership where you find a mutually agreeable solution to your problem– rather it’s like being chained to a needy toddler who’s not even yours and who wants all your cookies. I would love to have interactions with salespeople where they’re not intent on upselling and getting me into something I don’t want. Although I am an introvert and I do like the choice not to interact with someone when I am feeling overwhelmed, I do find myself seeking out people when I am running my errands. I don’t use self-checkout unless it’s the only option. Sometimes, I even ask for advice (though this is difficult because I hate being upsold to and I can see it coming a mile away.) So if we have become a nation of passive-aggressive DIYers, it’s because we did this to ourselves.

3. I don’t know. Occasionally, despite my internalization of RTFM and my dislike of upselling and/or being urged to buy something that’s not what I want, I do find myself asking people for information. “Do you have a list of sewing machines compatible with this bobbin type?” (No.) “Where can I find a tool for removing a stripped screw?” (I don’t know. Do they even make those?) We get exactly the kind of information that minimum wage pays for.

Sometimes it seems like everything in our culture steers us toward DIY information.

Speaking of doing this to ourselves: Forbes asks if the library of the future has books. (Typical of Forbes, the writer makes assertions that make me wonder if he has ever been in a library, let alone understand how a library works: “While most of the 100,000+ libraries in the U.S. will likely continue to function as they always have, moving books around shelves and holding areas, to and from patrons — at least for the foreseeable future — some libraries around the world are changing and this could be the start of a trend.”) I’m not sure how the general public has gotten the idea that all that happens in libraries is books being moved around, but each time that assertion is repeated, it strengthens a misunderstanding of what libraries do. I suspect that the libraries of the future will indeed have paper books. They might not be the institutions currently considered libraries, but I would be surprised if book trading and book lending went away, not just because of significant and expensive problems with electronic book contracts. I’m fully aware of my tenuous “ownership” of my significant e-book library. I’m aware that these books can be removed from my device’s library and that all I can really consider them is permanently lent. I mitigate it by using the ebook for back-up or travel copies of favorite books, for free e-books, and for books purchased through deals like Humble Bundle, which I also receive in other formats.

To me, one strength of e-books for libraries is the ability to make available obscure and esoteric works that haven’t really earned a place a public library shelf. Electronic storage is cheap and plentiful. Unfortunately, that’s not the way I see e-books being handled. A reader who does like those obscure and esoteric books is better off scouring booksellers for the few paper copies and then hoarding them.

Meanwhile, a friend posted a link to this article for me: The Independent: How Spain Fell in Love with Books Again. The article focuses on a library that was closed two years ago, but reopened recently by volunteers and restocked by donations. I think this story is going to happen more and more often and that these kinds of citizen-organized libraries will be all over the States, especially if libraries keep making assumptions about what people want.