If I can recommend a great local restaurant, leave a review for future patrons, alert my followers on Twitter, update my Facebook friends on my great new find - all in a few seconds - using only Yelp and my iPhone, why can't I similarly promote those businesses whose values I support?
Why is it so easy to tell thousands of people, literally, how awful a coffee shop's service is, for example, but I can't as easily steer people away from a store whose values I deplore?
It seems to me there should be an app - or maybe lots of apps - that make it easy for me to find, check-in, rate, review and recommend those businesses whose values align with mine. Forget pet friendly - are they gay friendly, Earth friendly? Do they seek a massive reduction in the size of government, do they refuse to buy from China, will they never cross a union picket line and can I count on them to support a strong national defense?
With the Yelp app, for example, I can easily set various parameters for a restaurant search: proximity, price range, type of food and customer ranking. But values is not one of the choices. This seems like a rather significant gap within the mobile-social-local nexus.
Values Equal Profits
There does not yet exist a robust analog for finding and supporting businesses I want to promote because of their values, and not simply their price, location or customer service. Why is that? In today's connected world - when anyone can get anything from anywhere, and always at the best price - values can become a core differentiator.
I don't want my money going to a business that is opposed to gay marriage. Perhaps that's exactly what you do want. Why not incorporate a "values" layer into Foursquare, for example and discover and share those businesses that have the very best lattes - and the strongest support for the values most important to me.
Foursquare users, for example, can "discover and learn about great places nearby, search for what you’re craving, and get deals and tips along the way." The app's 30 million users have checked in to various establishments more than 3 billion times. Consider the potential social good Foursquare could foster if values were made into a searchable variable.
The Trust Issue
Can people be trusted to not list a business as, say, homophobic, just because they were angry over the price or a long line to check out? Is it possible to know if a business legitimately supports climate-change improvements, for example, or is really working to limit poverty? It may be hard for a business to lie about its prices but all too easy to claim social and political stances that it doesn't back up with actions.
Fortunately, with more than a hundred million smartphones in use in America - more than 1 billion worldwide - the aggregate numbers and big data "smoothing" of billions of values-based check-ins and reviews should mitigate any lies or mistakes. For example, Amazon product reviews can generally be relied upon as a valid barometer of popular sentiment, even though they're completely subjective.
A few websites already provide a limited form of "values-based" recommendations for businesses. For example, OutGrade, launched earlier this year, lets users "rate places by gay friendliness or homophobia." Users rate establishments on a scale from -5 to +5, and the site color codes businesses based on their overall score: red is homophobic, green is " gay friendly." The OutGrade site accepts ratings for any business: restaurant, dentist office, pub, hotel, etc. and in three months has garnered reviews on more than 3,500 businesses.
OutGrade plans to release a mobile app "in the coming weeks." This is vital as it allows users to simply pull out their smartphones and find acceptable places in their immediate vicinity. While a website may offer a more robust experience, only an app can provide real-time location-based ratings and reviews, while boosting the reliability of recommendations by letting users initiate reviews on the spot.
One More Step
Why not an app that alerts me to a store's values as I walk inside? Or that alerts me to a product whose maker I want to support? For example, when I stare at that massive beer selection in the grocery store, perhaps my "values app" can remind me that Bud Light used social media to support gay marriage.
Plenty of apps and sites focus on a specific value or set of values, or utilize a top-down approach, where those who create the app set the rankings. This is a good start, but does not fully empower smartphone user to personally rate businesses by the values that matter to them.
For example, the Good Guide site rates an array of products that are "healthy, green and socially responsible." While useful, the information covers only selected products and is rated by a "team of scientific and technology experts," not actual users.
The FishPhone app offers a similar service and provides the seafood ratings system for Whole Foods. Of course, Whole Foods' CEO was famously opposed to Obamacare. The app would never tell me that.
This is a critical problem with single-focus and those not maintained not by the end users. For example, Ceres, "a network of over 130 investment funds, environmental organizations, unions and interest groups" promotes major companies that are making significant progress on sustainability goals. Ford was a recent winner. That's great, unless you believe that a large automobile manufacturer should never be included on a list of sustainability leaders.
Getting Comfortable With Controversial Topics
The issue preventing a user-driven values based shopping app is not a technical one. The larger issue is that too many of us are not yet comfortable with the very idea of values-based recommendations.
When it comes to choosing goods and services, we have spent our whole lives focused on price, quality and convenience. Values are fuzzy, harder to quantify - and can lead to difficult decisions. What if your friendly, neighborhood grocer, for example, turns out be a climate change denier - and you live in area prone to flooding? Once you learn the values of a business and determine you are in opposition, would you continue to shop there? Will supporting only businesses whose values align with yours merely serve to divide society instead of promoting the values in question?
The technology to make this possible already exists, so it's likely we'll have the answers soon enough.
iPhone image courtesy of Apple.