Clippy as an Ethics Case Study

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Gardner_Jun30_207 (2).jpgCan Clippy replace Three Mile Island? Ethics analysis in professional writing classes usually focuses on well-known case studies, like the Three Mile Island meltdown, the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, the Exxon Valdez grounding, and the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. These are splashy examples that seem to have obvious answers. While they offer some room for conversation about the communication involved in the cases, they are well-worn at this point, having been discussed for years.

In my search for ethics case studies for professional writing, I have been looking for new scenarios that offer the opportunity to talk about not just the communication choices, but the underlying struggle between what’s best for business and the most ethical choice. And that brings me to Clippy (officially Clippit), the annoying animated paper clip that was a part Microsoft’s software from 1996 to 2007.

Recent stories (listed below), based on a new documentary Code: Debugging the Gender Gap, reveal that focus groups reacted negatively to Clippy during the design process. Women, in particular, felt Clippy was overly masculine and made them uncomfortable. This case study activity asks students to consider whether ignoring those focus group responses was ethical. The activity would take place after students have explored the codes of ethics for their fields and for technical communication in general.

Related Screenshot for Background Information

The average college student is probably too young to have used Clippy, so share a screenshot like the one below and talk about how Clippy worked:


Share the various animations for Clippy with the Clippy.JS software, which adds Clippy to a website.

Relevant Articles

If desired, you might add Microsoft’s ‘Clippy’ a security nightmare? from ZDNet to discuss the software design and ethics.

Discussion Questions

  1. How are the problems with Clippy related to the way that the animated virtual assistant worked (the functionality of the feature)?
  2. How do the problems relate to the script (the questions and answers that appeared on screen) for the feature?
  3. How do the problems relate to the images used for the feature?
  4. How are the codes of ethics you have explored relevant to this situation?
  5. How would you the feedback from women about the feature relate to codes of ethics?
  6. How would you categorize the decisions related to Clippy as bad business decisions, unethical decisions, or both?
  7. Are there aspects of the decision that might fall into some other categories?
  8. When would it be appropriate to ignore focus group feedback and why?
  9. How does Clippy compare to other animated assistants, like Siri or Cortana?
  10. What ethical considerations would you take away from the Clippy situation if you were working on a design, script, or images for a tool like Siri or Cortana?

Assessment and Conclusion

In assessing student’s discussion of this case study then, I want to look for places where students point to their codes of ethics and explain how the codes relate to their analysis of the situation. Further, I want to hear them make clear explanations of which aspects of the case are clearly ethical matters, which are not, and which are ambiguous.

This activity is another in the series that grew from conversations during the Pathways Summer Institute, sponsored by the Virginia Tech Office of General Education. As this case study relates to the Virginia Tech Pathways curriculum, the focus on balancing what’s best for business with the most ethical choice asks students to “identify ethical issues in a complex context” (Indicator of Learning 2 for the Ethical Reasoning Integrative Learning Outcome).

I hope to identify several more ethical scenarios and case studies that I can use with students. If you have a suggestion or have a case that has worked for you, please share it with me. Just leave me a comment below, or drop by my page on Facebook or Google+.

[Photo: remember clippy by Daniel Novta, on Flickr]

About the Author
Traci Gardner, known as "tengrrl" on most networks, writes lesson plans, classroom resources, and professional development materials for English language arts and college composition teachers. She is the author of Designing Writing Assignments, a contributing editor to the NCTE INBOX Blog, and the editor of Engaging Media-Savvy Students Topical Resource Kit.