Matthew Dewald did good work when he was at the University of Dayton. Now that he plies his blue pencil—old-print-guy-editor reference—at the University of Richmond, he’s making Richmond a magazine that merits your attention.
The most recent issue got my attention on pg. 2 with a photo of this guy, to your right in the killer heels. He is Madison Moore, a post-doc at Richmond, and I don’t know which I like more—that Richmond is cool enough to put him on the adjunct faculty, or that Dewald was cool enough to put him in the magazine.
In the feature well is something else you don’t see every day: Two readable stories written by faculty members. Political science assistant professor Monti Narayan Datta contributed a potent piece about contemporary slavery, especially the Asian sex trade. But the piece that impressed me the most was “Click to Agree” by Jim Gibson, a law professor and director of Richmond’s Intellectual Property Institute. It’s a six-page spread on boilerplate contracts. Yeah. Six pages on boilerplate contracts, those things that we all never read but must agree to before we can install software on our computers or a new app on our smartphones. And I read it all.
For one thing, Gibson has the wit to include this as an example of consumer oblivion to boilerplate:
Like price, a contract term is just a feature of the transaction. If you don’t like the contract, just walk away. When you walk away, you’re signaling to the invisible hand to come down hard on that seller.
But does the theory work in practice? Consider this: A couple of years ago, a British video game retailer hatched an April Fool’s Day scheme. Buried deep in its online sales contract, to which customers had to agree when making a purchase, was the following term: “By placing an order via this Web site on the first day of the fourth month of the year 2010 Anno Domini, you agree to grant Us a non transferable option to claim, for now and for ever more, your immortal soul.”
The fine print described how the company could exercise its option, including serving notice “in 6 (six) foot high letters of fire.” But if you were an attentive customer and you wanted to hold onto your soul—or had “already given it to another party”—you could opt out of the provision by clicking a link. Those who did were rewarded with a discount offer and the chance to win free games.
You can guess what happened. The vast majority of customers never clicked the link. They simply agreed to the entire contract without reading it.
Gibson goes on to report on an analysis that he’s done of the cost to the consumer of actually reading and comprehending the boilerplate contracts that accompanied four computers that he bought, compared to potential consumer benefit. You’ll have to trust me on this until you see for yourself—the story at this point is still engaging and readable.
But wait—computers are expensive. One should expect to spend some time checking them out before parting with so much money. I addressed this issue by expressing the consumer’s burden in words per dollar. Even under this metric, the burden is high: 93 words per dollar spent. Imagine having to read 93 words of boilerplate each time you buy a can of soda, 279 words when buying a $3 gallon of milk, or 5,580 words when filling a 20-gallon tank with gas.
That’s smart writing. And illustrator Katie McBride put all of this into a terrific two-page infographic, reproduced online in a stacked version. (Click on the image to fully appreciate it.) I finished the piece and thought, That’s the damnedest alumni magazine story I’ve read all year.
Makes me wonder what Dewald and Richmond will do next. Which is exactly what we all want readers to think when they finish our latest issues.