The University of San Francisco launched a clever advertising campaign last year that stated, "There's no 'Moral Compass' app." Turns out that's not exactly true.
I'm not even talking about the apps MoralCompass or Moral Compass: The former is a rudimentary flow chart and the latter is more of a daily delivery of famous quotes and self-help mantras. The real moral compass for your smartphone is Seesaw, an app that lets you crowdsource decision making. It launched back in February and Seesaw Decisions Corp. announced its first major update Thursday morning.
Seesaw's strength lies in helping users with basic queries aided by photos: Which hat should you buy, or what should you eat for lunch? The update loosens the chains weighing down Seesaw's sign-up process (you now can sign up using social media instead of your phone number), and as Seesaw's user base grows its crowdsourced decision-making assistance is beginning to expand into tricky questions about right and wrong.
Case in point: on Thursday morning one Seesaw user explained his groundhog problem and asked whether he should release the offending varmints or "make them vanish from the earth." The crowd answered early on by voting for 'eliminate for good' (emphasized with a picture of a rifle), but eventually shifted towards 'catch and release' by 22-18. Groundhogs may be annoying, but killing is not the answer - at least that's what Seesaw users say.
Spanning Preference To Morality
The original purpose of Seesaw was not to let you ask thousands of strangers whether should, say, put your dog to sleep or break up with your significant other. Its intended function was to help users get affirmation and organize advice based on the opinion and who supplied it.
"Often times I'll ask my friends for feedback, and I'll already know the answer. You're just looking for moral support and encouragement. You need that reinforcement to do it," explains Aaron Gotwalt, Seesaw's founder. If you're really trying to make a tough decision, you want input from the people whose opinions you value. "There are the people that are important to you, and then there's everyone else," Gotwalt says.
The new update lets you both sign up and log in through social media accounts like Facebook. (Because Facebook and Twitter don't let Seesaw access the API that would let the app send invites, getting your friends to start using it is still handled via SMS.) Seesaw is working on letting you split votes by social network so that you could compare what your Facebook friends think you should do against advice from other circles.
Can An App Provide A Moral Compass?
For me, Seesaw becomes truly fascinating when moral issues come into play. Not only did Steve the potential groundhog exterminator get a lesson in animal ethics, he got valuable insight into what others might do in his shoes.
My first Seesaw question addressed whether or not I should crowdsource my moral decision making. (How meta is that?) Not surprisingly, strangers on the app overwhelmingly think I should. But my query also exposes flaws in Seesaw's ability to serve as a true moral compass.
For one, as everyone knows, it's far easier to tell someone else what to do than it is to make actually make a decision yourself. I have no reason to think people didn't answer my question seriously, but they could have just found it funny. As for Steve's groundhog problem, a yes-or-no question can't possibly get at all the nuances of the situation.
Then there's the follow up issue. Steve has no particular incentive to actually follow through on the crowd's suggestion. It'd be an interesting addition if Seesaw could let users notify the crowd what they actually decided to do.
Obviously, Seesaw is more focused on its ability to gather friends around simple decisions centered on clothing, accessory purchases or food, and the app is a solid decision-making tool for these relatively trivial situations.
Crowdsourcing moral decisions, on the other hand, is uncharted territory. Seesaw is inadvertently emerging as a leader in this space. At the very least, when it comes to letting a crowd make decisions for you, Seesaw is a better choice than turning yourself into a publicly owned company.