Now that the excitement of Town Meeting has simmered down, my friend called me last evening to discuss another recent concern: Facebook. To wit, whether Provincetonians (did I just coin a term?) should leave the social media platform en masse as more sharing of users’ information is revealed.
Privacy? That ship sailed. It sailed the day we decided that the bright shiny world of the Internet with its promises and conveniences was worth filling out a few innocuous-looking forms (what did you think they were going to do with the information they were collecting?). It sailed the day Amazon suggested a book that we bought and liked, and started turning to algorithms to tell us what to read next. It sailed the day we set up an ongoing subscription to chewy.com or the New York Times, or took a language course, or made a donation online. It sailed the day we found we could stay in touch with friends over social media and started seriously searching for memes to share.
Did you really think that none of this had consequences?
Slow down. Take a deep breath. Know that I’m not talking about the kind of information breach from a credit-card company or Experian, one that sends your social security number and your home address and your annual income into the hands of hackers. Security for that sort of thing does need to be more sophisticated, but it’s to some extent still your choice as well. You don’t have to have credit cards.
What I’m talking about, instead, is the marketing issue. I’m a marketer myself, so I’ve been following this story pretty much from the beginning, and again, the best I can tell you is: whoa, Nellie.
Have you noticed that when you look for one thing on the web, suddenly all you see, everywhere, are ads for that very thing? That’s called ad retargeting, and it’s extremely annoying (I bought a dress online recently and now all I see are ads for the same dress, which means something’s a little off—I’m not likely to buy two of them!). It’s also extremely effective and extremely lucrative.
Ironically, when this first started happening (Amazon does it on a grand scale, but other marketers were doing it all along), many people liked it. They were being shown opportunities to purchase things that they actually wanted, and via a much lighter-touch marketing technique. It was convenient, it felt appropriate, and not too many people gave it too much thought. But don’t kid yourself: a lot of the information that Facebook collected about you? It was already out there.
The Facebook brouhaha just brought targeting out into the open. Yeah, marketers are hungry to have demographical data on potential customers, why on earth wouldn’t they? They want to know if you’re more likely to purchase a bicycle or a wheelchair in the next six months.
And it’s not all that different from offline marketing; it’s the scale and the presence of big data that’s changed. You walk into a shoe shop with a friend and the two of you talk about an upcoming event you’re both attending. If the salesperson is alert (and not playing Candy Crush on their iPhone), they’re going to hear that. It’s helpful information. Now they can offer you shoes that are appropriate to a whole lot of factors: your age, your gender, the event you’re attending, your price range… It’s probable that you didn’t get upset about them having that information. It’s probable, in fact, that you appreciated it.
Marketing is marketing, whether I’m trying to sell you a widget or a president. And here’s the really hard truth about the Facebook information: it’s targeting stupid people. I’m not saying that if you’re Mensa material you’re going to be immune 100% of the time, but you have a far better chance than the guy with the eighth-grade education who believes whatever he reads on the net. The purpose of collecting data is to make sure the right ads (or sponsored posts) are seen by the right people. And much of the clickbait that’s out there is aimed at people who really do respond to “…and you WON’T BELIEVE WHAT HAPPENED NEXT…” Really? You’re clicking on that? Shame on you. Be smarter, and you’ll be safer.
If you want to be online—and you wouldn’t be reading a digital publication right now if you didn’t—then know that you do not own your data. Amazon does. Google does. Facebook does. Every major corporation that you’ve ever done business with does. And you’re not getting it back.
The answer isn’t to leave Facebook, which after all is a free service that serves a terrific purpose: keeping various communities connected in positive and constructive ways. The answer is to be cognizant of what you share. The answer is to scrutinize what comes through your feed and not respond to clickbait.
I may be biased, but I do think that Provincetonians are smarter than the average online bear. Being thoughtful comes second-nature to us. Let’s make sure we stay as thoughtful online as off.