Monday, January 28, 2013

The MyMagic+ Backlash and Fireworks Show

For the last couple weeks, the new MyMagic+ program that will soon be implemented at Walt Disney World has been the big topic of conversation in most Disney fan circles. If you’re reading this I’m going to assume you know what’s going on, but I’ll restate some of the basic facts:

On January 5, some sensitive (and no doubt highly confidential) information on the long-awaited NextGen project appeared on an Internet message board. According to the leaked information, a major implementation of the NextGen program is an RFID-enabled bracelet (which we would later learn is called a MagicBand, presumably because the names DreamBracelet and PixieCuff didn’t test well with focus groups) that would be issued to park vistors at Walt Disney World and would serve as a combination park ticket, room key, and FastPass. The document made it clear that, while this change would be marketed as an improvement to the customer experience, its true goal was to enable the company to conduct total surveillance of every customer on their property as part of a gigantic data-mining operation. But what really creeped people out (besides the total surveillance thing, of course) was this passage:

To reach the profit targets and overarching design goals set for this project, as well as export the technology and its fruit to other companies, Disney understood early on that there could be no opt-out for any guest. Application of an 'opt-out mode' would remove the control and thereby defeat the financial gains required of such a massive capital outlay defined publicly devoid of detail.

Amazingly, some people actually had a problem with the idea of mandatory participation in a surveillance/data mining scheme as a condition of doing business with Walt Disney World.

Two days later, on January 7, Disney attempted to regain control of the situation with a post on the Disney Parks blog “announcing” MyMagic+ and also a New York Times fluff piece that read like a company press release. Both articles assured us that customers would be able to opt out of the new program if they wished. However, there were noticeably few details offered as to how that would work. And since Disney is obviously looking to make a lot of money from mining their customers’ data, the consensus that emerged among the level-headed members of the online community that while MyMagic would probably have an opt-out option, the company would likely make it a painful and inconvenient process, and that those who did opt out would be “penalized” with a worse theme park experience.

Then on January 23, Massachussetts Congressman Edward J. Markey sent a letter to Disney CEO Bob Iger in which he raised a lot of the same questions about privacy and customer experience that had been discussed on Internet message boards for the previous three weeks, but which Disney had pointedly failed to address. I’ve linked to the full letter above, but some of the more interesting questions are:

    • “Will Disney guests be required to use MagicBand?”
    • “If a guests choose not to use MagicBand, what disadvantages, if any, will that guest experience while visiting a Disney park (i.e., longer waits for attractions, etc.)?”
    • “Does your company plan to use information collected from MagicBands to target advertisements and marketing at guests? . . . If yes, do you planto target advertisements at kids 12 and under? If yes, please explain the ways in which you plan to target advertisements at children.”

Now, I’m certainly willing to believe that Mr. Markey’s motives in writing this letter are less about genuine concern for Disney’s customers and their children and more about a desire to make himself look like a Crusading Advocate For Ordinary People in advance of an upcoming special election for a Senate seat in his state that has recently opened up.

Nevertheless, the questions he raised are still valid. Most of them are things that the Disney fan community has been wondering about since news of this whole MyMagic+ thing broke earlier in the month. And none of them were directly addressed in the company’s January 7 blog post or the New York Times story they spoon-fed to “reporter” Brooks Barnes the same day.

So, if Disney was really not engaging in anything sinister, and the Congressman’s letter was nothing but a groundless bit of political grandstanding, then it would be quite easy for the company to pop his balloon by simply answering the questions. So that is not what Disney did. Instead, CEO Bob Iger and his lawyers replied to the Congressman with an angry letter that made the following points:

  • Disney is a beloved American company, and as such it is completely above criticism.
  • The mere suggestion that Disney would ever do anything the least bit underhanded is ridiculous and Disney is offended that the Congressman would dare to even think of such a thing.
  • Disney would never haphazardly introduce a program that manipulates children. (Presumably, it would only introduce a program that manipulates children in a non-haphazard fashion)
  • Congressman Markey’s stupid questions are answered on Disney’s website, and if he’d spent five minutes reading it before writing his stupid letter, he would have known better than to cast aspersions on Disney and its sterling reputation.
  • But, just to shut the Congressman’s big fat stupid mouth, answers to a few of his questions are on an attached document.
  • Congressman Markey is ugly and his mother dresses him funny.

To be fair, one of the Congressman’s questions (the one about whether or not Disney will use information collected through the MagicBand program to market to children under 13) was directly answered on the document attached to Mr. Iger’s letter. But the rest of it is nothing but a lot of angry posturing.

Noted Disney blogger and podcaster Tom Bricker put it best, I think, when he quoted this adage: “If the facts are on your side, pound the facts. If the law is on your side, pound the law. If neither the facts nor the law are on your side, pound the table.” That’s what we’re seeing here. Is that because the facts and/or the law is not on Disney’s side? I don’t know, since I’m not a Disney insider, just a guy who puts his opinions on the Internet. But it sure looks that way.

I think it’s very telling that the only people with whom Mr. Iger’s angry, indignant response seems to have played well are:

  1. Fanatical Disney fans who love anything the company does, no matter what it is. If Disney World opened an attraction called “Kill Baby Kittens With A Hammer” these people would squeal excitedly about how “magical” it is.
  2. People who, for political/ideological reasons, dislike Mr. Markey and/or the political party to which he belongs.

But that’s a pretty tiny fraction of Disney’s overall customer base, isn’t it? The majority of Disney’s customers are parents who partake of the company’s offerings only because it offers reliably kid-friendly entertainment. They don’t frequent Disney-themed websites or blogs and likely would have never heard of MyMagic+ until they went to book their next Disney World vacation on the Disney website, where the program would be presented in a positive light.

But now the Congressman’s inquiries about the program, and the bellicose response of Mr. Iger and his lawyerbots, are sure to attract media attention. And not the kind of “gee-whiz, look at this excellent and cool new thing at Walt Disney World” attention the company prefers, but the “Disney wants to use a manacle-like wristband to track your children” narrative that the company wanted to avoid at all costs.

I realize I haven’t said a lot about my opinions on MyMagic+. That’s coming in a later post. For now, the backlash surrounding this program makes for one heck of an entertaining fireworks show. Enjoy!

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