The gift of empathy

Megan McArdle of the Atlantic has a timely reminder of the dangers of schadenfreude:

I saw a fair amount of chortling this morning about this Bloomberg piece on wealthy financial-industry types who are having to cut back because of plummeting bonuses….[W]hen middle class people take out a mortgage that’s perfectly affordable on the income they’ve been enjoying for years, and then lose the house because they suddenly saw that income cut in half, we don’t feel a delicious sense of joy because they finally got what was coming to them.   We recognize that this it is really terrible to be forced out of a home where you’ve built loads of happy memories and dreams–and not incidentally, to possibly be forced to yank your kids out of the aforementioned schools.

Why are people supposed to shrug off the exact same thing because they’re rich?  It’s still really awful to lose your house.  I hardly think it’s whining to worry about this when your income drops and your fixed expenses don’t.
There are plenty of problems in this country and this world.  Rejoicing in the misery of others is just another problem that nobody needs.
The fact is that no matter how much you make, seeing your income fall below the expenses you’ve committed to is difficult.  Obviously, people whose expenses are closer to the minimum deserve more of our sympathy, and our help.  But I’m not sure that this means we’re supposed to be happy when it happens to someone richer than we are.  It’s not very attractive when conservatives rejoice to see union members thrown out of work.  I’m not sure this is much better.

Can Google incentivize being social?

There is no question that Google would like to be more prominent in the social networking (SNS) phenomenon. Apparently, Google has tied an incentive for employees, a yearly bonus, to how well the employees help the company move forward in this area:

[Your bonus] can range from 0.75 to 1.25 depending on how well we perform against our strategy to integrate relationships, sharing and identity across our products.” Social.

And yes, you read that correctly, the bonus can go up or down based upon Google’s performance in the social realm. The critics are already jumping all over this one, noting that it looks like all Google employees will be losing bonus money this year. And given the decided lack of success from products like Wave, Buzz, and to a broader extent, Orkut, who can blame them?

But on a higher level, it’s the strategy itself that may be the most interesting thing here. Mathew Ingram notes that you can’t threaten people into being social. While Mike Elgan calls this Larry Page’s first blunder (as CEO). I actually have a slightly different take on this. I think that on paper, this is actually a good idea and strategy. But in practice, I think it will ultimately be looked upon as a bad thing and may even directly backfire.

I’m not sure that I really think the headline on this story captures what is going on (“I’m Having A Party. Here’s $50. Bring Cool People — Or You Owe Me $100.”): being social online is different than incentivizing employees to walk up to people they don’t know on the street and push products. In order to be social online, one needs only to make links between people (“friends” in Facebook terms) and then provide some content (which the user gets to pick and choose). Since I would guess that many Google employees are already operating privately in these SNS realms, how hard would it be to transfer some of that activity into a Google product? While this activity is still personal and requires effort from individuals, it doesn’t seem like it would take much to be social online with a new product.

Now it is a more interesting question to ponder whether such a strategy would actually help a fledgling SNS product get off the ground. This writer suggests other SNS launches were “organic” and a push from Google’s employees would only work if the product was really good. This might be the case – but the argument here is that we know for sure how SNS products take off. Could Google do something new with this kind of incentive and with its large number of employees (and their contacts), could they get a new program/app/platform up and running? If Google employees started even a decent online party, wouldn’t some other people want to get involved?

(On a side note, it would be interesting to think more about this incentive. What do Google employees think of this? By virtue of possibly losing some of their bonus, will workers operate as homo economicus and help make something happen?)