Buy Buy Birdie: The Good and The Bad of “Buy Now Buttons”

i-bagWhen I was younger, I was always confused by the blare at the end of every infomercial saying that the first 50 callers would get discounts that were simply unbelievable. If you thought the normal offer was mind-blowing, call now, and you can get two Salad Shooters, and a bonus Salad Scooper. I wondered how they knew when the infomercial was airing, if there was a red light going off in the call center and a frantic sales boss, sweaty and mustachioed, screaming that the 1:30 AM in Chicago was airing and that they better buckle in because this was the big one, people.

Obviously, no such thing existed. They weren’t really counting; it was just a trick to help spur you into a decision. In some ways, that is what commerce is all about: turning wants into needs and infusing them with a sense of urgency. The stepbrother to urgency, in commerce, is convenience, which is at the heart of the mobile tech revolution. Right now, these two concepts are fusing as some of the Silicon Valley tech giants, like Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest, are trying to change your experience by adding “buy buttons” to their site, thus shortening the steps between desire and acquisition. What these “buy buttons” will mean for our smartphones and tablets is an interesting debate, and one that could shape our relationship with technology.

The Buy Button: Coming Soon or a Distant Dream?

The theory behind the “buy button” is this: you are scrolling through Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram on your phone or tablet, and a company or independent artisan posts something about an awesome product. You look at it and decide: Yes. I need this. This is what will finally make my house a home, and possibly help me rediscover my childhood joy. At the very least, it will do something about all these ants. Slapped up on the screen is a button that says “Purchase,” and with one press of your finger the product is on its way.

Of course, on the technological side it’s not quite this easy. It is an enormous technological and logistical challenge, especially when it comes to contracting with independent vendors. If you are on, you know that Target has a pretty good handle on its inventory, and if something is out of stock it tends to say so. That might not be the case on a non-retail site like Twitter or Instagram.

Think of it this way. You are scrolling through Pinterest, and you see that one of your favorite artisans has put up a picture of their latest work: you click “buy,” but unfortunately, so did about a million other people. There isn’t anywhere near enough of this particular product to supply that demand. It would be a massacre. Does Pinterest step in and monitor inventory? Is it up to the artist?

Another problem is that you, of course, have to enter your purchasing information to make the process as easy as predicted. The “buy button” only works if you don’t have to fill anything else out. That’s the whole point, but for it to work, you have to give your credit card or other payment information to Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, etc. This act is what changes things. After all, our relationship with, say, Amazon, is one of commerce. That isn’t the case with the other sites. Having to give them your financial information makes them a site primarily for commerce, transforms our relationship to them, and will impact our mobile technology itself.

The “Buy Button” and the Television Warning

It’s impossible to imagine now, but when television was invented, it was supposed to be the greatest educational tool the world had ever seen: a way for scientists to talk to the masses, and a venue for debate and open discussion. That lasted exactly 15 minutes. Pretty soon, television became an industry based on selling advertisements, with the shows created only as a way to get people to watch the ads.

This isn’t terrible, of course, and has led to some entertaining, informative, and ambitious programs. The “vast wasteland” of Newton Minow’s nightmare was always, perhaps, a bit of an exaggeration, but it is true that commercialization certainly altered our conception of television, and changed what television would be, since ratings determined ad buys, and ad buys determined everything. The question is, what impact will commercialization have on our mobile technology?

The promise and reality of mobile tech has greater implications for our society than even television. You have the sum of the world’s knowledge contained in the smartphone in your pocket or purse, or the tablet on your table. It’s amazing. You can pull up all of the works of Goethe right now or watch a brilliantly written episode of a TV show. Our relationship with our mobile tech right now is one of discovery.

When “buy buttons” really come into play, we’ll have to make sure that we handle that balance, so that our smartphones and tablets don’t solely become tools for commerce. If they do, we start to expect them to be, like television, essentially commercial-delivery devices, and that cheapens their value to us. It alters our expectation for them.

I don’t want that to happen to our mobile tech. It’s great that we can use them for commercial reasons, but when those become indistinguishable from everything else, we’ve lost what makes them so special. We use them for amazing and beautiful things, like tracing the story of our lives, as well as for incredibly convenient shopping, and it should stay that way.

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