Thursday, February 24, 2011

How You Can Fix the World

How are you going to fix the world? 

Each of us can. Like the child in the story about the emperor’s new clothes, sometimes all we have to do is speak up. 

Here’s an example: 

In 1995 I wanted to buy a certain book, but I couldn’t find it in any bookstore in Jerusalem, which is where I was living. Someone told me about a new American company that was selling books online (not dropping any names here: *cough* Amazon *cough*), and I thought I would give it a try. 

I had a computer, and I was comfortable in cyberspace. In fact, I had studied computer graphics and basic HTML and had put together a fairly nice website on Geocities, with my own photos, graphics, links and so on. The visual web was just starting to take off, and I was excited to be a part of it. I loved buying books, and I found the idea of doing that online intriguing. 

This new website was cool, but surprisingly unsophisticated. After ordering my book, I wrote a letter to the company and offered suggestions on how they might improve things.
Books, I said, are judged by their covers. Why not scan the covers of all the books they sell so people can see them? And why not arrange the site’s homepage to feature recommended books, sort of like a bookstore window showing off their most enticing titles? And how about dividing the books into categories, much like the shelves in a bookstore are divided by subject and genre? And what about a “bargain bin” section, where readers can find books on sale? And what about being able to look up books by price, not just title?  I wrote that I had put together my own site, included the link, and told them I would be happy to help them implement these changes, which I was sure would improve their sales. I saw a problem that needed to be fixed, and I wanted to help them fix it, both for the company’s sake and mine as a customer.

I received a quick response. The person from the online bookstore informed me they knew their customers, and their customers were more interested in quickly loading pages than in being able to see covers and all the rest. It was “Thanks, but no thanks.”

While they might have known their customers, there were millions of other potential customers they might have been missing out on. But I shrugged and figured you can’t help someone who doesn’t want to be helped. I had done my part. I had spoken up. The rest wasn’t in my hands.
About a year later, I received another email from that online bookstore. They were very excited to announce some changes to their website. Customers could now see book covers. The homepage now looked more like a bookstore window. Books were divided into categories, much like the shelves in a bookstore. And it was now possible to find books that were on sale. 

My point isn’t that I’m responsible for this online bookstore’s success (although, you’re welcome, Jeff Bezos). My point is that you can’t fix the world if you don’t speak up. 

Maybe it wasn’t my email that led these changes. Maybe I was just one of ten or fifty or even a hundred people who wrote to that bookstore to make the same suggestions.  Maybe someone higher up in the company had already wanted to make these changes, the person who wrote to me was misinformed, and my email didn’t change a thing. You never know. But one thing that’s certain is your voice will never be heard if you don’t use it. 

Don’t think no one is listening or no one wants to hear you. If you’re polite, and you’re genuinely interested in helping others, it’s never a mistake to try. The answer could be no, but at least you will have done your part. The emperor won’t know he’s naked, unless you speak up. 

You can fix the world, but you have to speak up to do it.

How are you going to fix the world?