This ‘Internet Slowdown Day’ Gimmick Is Actually Really Smart Psychology

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Today, in an attempt to drum up support for net neutrality, the folks who run Vimeo, Etsy, Reddit, and other sites are participating in Internet Slowdown Day (ISD) by presenting their users with pop-ups or ads, many of them containing the spinning icon associated with a loading page, imploring users to get involved in the fight for net neutrality. It seems like the sites are doing this in different ways — Etsy and Vimeo with pop-up or pop-up-ish ads, Reddit with a smaller ad on the site’s right sidebar — but the basic idea is that without net neutrality, web-surfing speeds could be cut by big telecom companies who favor established sites over upstarts.

This all might seem a bit gimmicky, especially to those whose eyes have long since glazed over at mentions of “net neutrality,” but it’s actually really smart psychology for a few reasons.

1. It targets the right audience. Just because “net neutrality” is a frequent conversation topic in certain tech and media circles, that doesn’t mean the average internet user has a great grasp of the concept and its importance. In 2010, a Rasmussen poll found that only 21 percent of voters supported net neutrality. Even four years later, Gregory Ferenstein of Venture Beat found that 57 percent of the people he polled didn’t know enough about net neutrality to have an opinion on it, and that among those who did, there was almost an equal split. The people who need to know about it and who are most likely to do something about it are the sorts of folks who visit the sites in question, so hitting them where they browse makes sense.

2. It gives people “skin in the game.” ISD drags curious or apathetic members of the public into this fight by effectively saying, Hey, you and your web habits are going to be affected by this. It taps into their identities as Reddit or Etsy or Vimeo users and elevates a pretty technical, bureaucratic fight to a matter of personal importance. A lot of research suggests that awareness is overrated — that at a certain point, more information about a given threat or issue does little to change our behavior. This campaign recognizes that and goes a step further than simply saying, We have to do something!

3. It takes advantage of “channel factors” to make it really easy for the sites’ users to get involved. One of the many reasons awareness fails is that it doesn’t translate to action. Okay, I’m now aware of this problem — but what am I supposed to do about it? And whatever action I’m supposed to take, will I take it before something else distracts me? For awhile, researchers have known that so-called “channel factors” — which can be as simple as conveniently placed recycling bins — can do a great deal to influence human behavior. The ISD sites take advantage of that — all make it easy for users to contact Congress and the FCC to sound off on net neutrality simply with a click or two. Whether or not a popular outcry will win out over whatever skullduggery is going on between the big cable companies, the FCC, and Congress is another matter, but these ads are structured in a much more effective way than simply telling people to call Congress and trusting they’ll do so.