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Ever get the feeling the technology industry is trolling you?

The Guardian // 28th July 2016
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Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Ever get the feeling the technology industry is trolling you?” was written by Olivia Solon in San Francisco, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 26th July 2016 08.37 UTC

Don’t have time to pick up your dog’s excrement but do have time to snap a photo and log its location in a smartphone app so that some poor soul can schlep across town to do it for you? Then Pooper is for you.

Yes, there really is an app for crap. Or at least a snazzy promotional website with a stinky strapline: “Your dog’s poop in someone else’s hands.”

As you might expect, this shitty extension of the on-demand economy has been met with equal measures of shock, anger and disbelief. Whichever camp you’re in, one thing is clear: Pooper has attracted a lot of (mostly negative) attention. And that’s exactly what its founders wanted. Page views ? even if they are hate reads ? count as “traction” for an idea, which captures investors’ and recruiters’ attention.

Welcome to the world of troll products.

Shock tactics within marketing are nothing new (anyone remember the Ford Ka ad where the car’s sunroof decapitated a cat?), but increasingly it is the product itself that’s becoming the source of outrage, rather than the techniques used to promote it.

Online dating is an area rife with troll products, with sites designed only for the beautiful, the rich and the racist. Dating services are fundamentally undifferentiated, so finding a unique selling point is critical if a new entrant to market is going to gain any kind of userbase. In today’s era of outrage clickbait, a purposefully provocative pitch will cut through the noise and may buy a startup enough time and attention to attract funding.

One of the masters in the dark art of troll products is Brandon Wade. The strapline on his own website is (deep breaths): “Love is a concept invented by poor people.”

It won’t come as a huge surprise then that he’s the man behind a number of sugar daddy dating sites including SeekingArrangement, WhatsYourPrice and MissTravel, where women offer their, er, “companionship” in return for goods and services.

The jewel in his provocateur’s crown was Carrot Dating, an app that allowed members to send “bribes” to capture a potential suitor’s attention. Everything about the product was designed to enrage, from the pictures of Wade dangling actual carrots in front of scantily-clad models to the comments Wade made about women loving presents “like dogs love treats”. It was a great big stick sharpened and placed in the way of a bear. CNN called it crass, Business Insider called it sexist and Mail Online said it was prostitution. Within three weeks the app had more than 90,000 downloads.

Wade seemed to have developed a new success metric: Return On Infuriation.

Some gaming apps have adopted a similar approach, eschewing original gameplay mechanics in favour of controversial content. Rack Stare, the game that rewards players for staring at women’s breasts without getting caught, is a the real life embodiment of a “joke” app idea presented on stage to widespread backlash at TechCrunch Disrupt in 2013. It launched in 2011, inexplicably bypassed Apple’s App Store moderators, and became the most downloaded entertainment app in the US.

Meanwhile, the game Boyfriend Trainer used domestic violence as a central motif. The female protagonist would slap, strangle and electrocute her partner in order to get him to behave properly. Predictably, outrage and notoriety ensued.

Troll products become particularly pernicious when news organisations can directly benefit from whipping up the fury. It’s little known among readers that media companies can directly benefit from commissions by linking to products on Amazon through a process called affiliate marketing. This can encourage a more pearl-clutching approach to press coverage, encouraging readers to take-a-look-at-this-terrible-thing-you-would-have-never-otherwise-have-come-across.

Case in point: this sexy PhD costume, created by Rubie’s Costumes in New York. Yes it was tacky, but no more tacky than a sexy nurse or Ghostbuster (yes, really).

Careful inspection of stories written about the costume reveals the tell-tale affiliate links, unique URLs that allow Amazon to apportion commissions to the websites that send it business. It doesn’t matter that a reader doesn’t buy the offending item – the publisher of the story will get a cut if they buy anything from the site.

Sensible advice would be for us ? the media and members of the public ? to avoid feeding these troll products with our breathless indignation. Ignore them and they’ll suffocate through lack of attention. But that’s not going to happen because we’re all too livid. I’m off to set up a Change.org petition against the internet.

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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