In fact, there was plenty of discomfort across the board, not just with Clippy. “We did a bunch of focus-group testing, and the results came back kind of negative,” she later recalled
. “Most of the women thought the characters were too male and that they were leering
at them.” The majority-male leadership team decided to move forward anyway.
Most experts, however, note that Clippy’s real problem was that he was “optimized for first use.” You might appreciate help in writing your very first letter; that exact same offer of help is infuriating by the time you’ve reached your fiftieth. “The reason I think people hate him is not because of what Clippy is, but how Clippy acts,” Atteberry told VICE earlier this year.
Microsoft asked Nass for advice on how to rehabilitate Clippy in 1998. The problem, the Stanford professor said, traced back to his original research with Reeves. If people treated computers in general (and Clippy specifically) in the same way as a person, then both were subject to the same social expectations we have of our peers. “No matter how long users worked with Clippy, he never learned their names or preferences,” Nass wrote in The Man Who Lied to His Laptop, a 2010 book about human-computer relationships. “Indeed, Clippy made it clear he was not at all interested in getting to know them. If you think of Clippy as a person, of course he would evoke hatred and scorn.”
Nass pored through social-science literature to figure out how unpopular people managed to make friends. The answer? Create a scapegoat. He designed an alternate version of Clippy that, if users designated his advice “not helpful,” would encourage them to send a scathing email to Microsoft’s help team. He’d continue to egg them on: “C’mon! You can be tougher than that! Let ’em have it!”
“The results were unanimous,” Nass writes. “People fell in love with the new Clippy.”