Act III: Enter business
Now once you had all that information voluntarily on the ‘net, what would be the next step? Well, data about consumers’ habits is valuable. If you could, say, gather all people on an area that have tweeted about the Coke they just drank, wouldn’t it be nice for Coca-Cola to stage a promotional event in that neighbourhood? Now that we can link what people think and say about themselves to their location and the date they did something, the profiling data at the disposal of marketing agencies increased tremendously.
We’re all being profiled every day. Most of it can happen anonymously. If you shop regularly at a supermarket, you might soon find out that they will carry the majority of the products you like, and the ones you bought just once but found unappealing will quickly leave the shelves, never to appear. This is true for the average shopper (while, on the other hand, if you happen have an extreme tastes, you might find your local supermarket to get worse and worse over time, as your favourite products will never go back to the shelves). Supermarkets — and all sorts of retail shops, really — manipulate petabytes of data every day, from all locations in the world where they operate, to provide you with the best shopping experience possible, by measuring trends, product placement and its success, and consuming habits over the year. Some might see this as a form of enhanced service: on average, the products you like most will always be in stock and easily available.
Some of that data might not be so anonymous, namely, if you’re using a credit card, for instance. That way, the supermarket chain might be able to tag your shopping habits to a single person. Your experience might be different, but I always find it amusing that a local chain always gives me discounts on the products I like most. After a few years, they know exactly what I like and what I usually buy. If I always shopped for food at the same place (I don’t), they could probably pre-stock everything on the exact day I enter the premises, and the attendant could just hand over a personalised bag with my groceries. We’re not at that point, but… close, very close. The point is, this isn’t “new”, but something that for long has been taken for granted.
Similarly, you might have noticed that most ads you see on my blog are related to things you like — and while virtual worlds might be quite high on the top of the list, it might not be the only thing listed there. Google first indexes my blog before it places ads on it. But it also checks my Google AdSense profile, where I give tips and hints on the kind of adverts I’m happy about, and which types I don’t like. But on top of that, if you’re logged in with your Google Account (because, say, you might have just checked your Gmail), Google will personalise your ads further. While my blog is not the best example — I do filter out a lot of ad types — you can make this experiment on a more generic website, like on a news site.
How does this work? Every time an email is delivered on your mailbox, Google scans it for keywords. Over time, Google will know who your friends are and what kind of information you exchange on your emails, about, for instance, shopping preferences. Google will know where you work (if you get some business-related emails on your Gmail account) and what kind of work you do. It will also have a good clue on the kind of activities you participate. If you use GTalk, it’ll also know what interests you have in common with your most close friends. Put that all into a profile, and everytime an ad is shown you by Google’s AdSense network, it will be as personalised to your tastes as possible.
Scary, isn’t it? You bet!
Facebook, with Microsoft’s ad technology, is actually even better (sorry, Google 🙂 ). I was actually fascinated how they always placed ads for promotions to win new boots (and what gorgeous pictures I got!). It was such an uncanny coincidence until I found out what triggered it: on some place of my profile, it says something about “fashion”. It’s not easy to find, but it was possibly enough for Microsoft’s ad engine. And probably (who knows?) they found out about my profile on Stylefeeder — which shares at least the name and the email address with Facebook 🙂
Well, and it might be a coincidence. Perhaps it is, for 2010. But the technology is here, and it’s quite powerful to find those things and present them in the form of a profile. A personalised ad experience is far more effective than random spamming (in fact, I surely hope that the sheer stupidity of mass spamming disappears soon, as it’s way far easier to get a return on Google AdSense or Facebook ads than through “blind spamming”). If you have to live with ads, at least I’m sure you’ll prefer to see ads for products and services that at least have some marginal interest to you…
Now the perversity of this whole system is that to make sure that it works well — for the ad buyers and the ad networks — the information people present online about themselves has to be as accurate as possible. The more information you post about yourself, the better; but the more accurate it is, the more “valuable” your profile becomes. And the more valuable profiles a company is able to sell, the more money they can make, as ad placers will naturally gravitate towards the companies offering the best profiles.
It is quite clear to see that this trend is not going to stop. Companies offering user-generated content on their web-based services will try to extract as much possible information from their users. Profiles these days are still “basic” (people don’t want to type so much…), but you can infer a lot from relationships, groups you join, or the location where you are. Thanks to GPS tweeting, Twitter can now even give their profile clients an overall idea on the movements of their users. Facebook has turned part of their profiles public and changed their Terms of Service to make sure that at least some indexing data falls in the hands of the profiling companies — but additionally they have pushed for “only real identities” to create profiles in their service (which will give them a huge advantage over Twitter, since many of the most interesting services to follow on Twitter are not “people”, but bots… like, well, SLGridStatus). This has raised a controversy as Facebook became more and more aggressive in implementing their policy.
The controversy, however, might just be an overreaction by the ones that are not happy with the end of privacy. We all know that it’s only people who care that are vocal about what they think. Most people simply don’t care. Of those, only a very small part are actually vocal — they don’t care enough to talk about it. Oh, sure, they might comment about something they dislike with their friends over a cup of tea, but they won’t bother even to write on their Facebook timeline. And to be very truthful, most people really don’t bother about their “privacy”. In fact, they might be against all sorts of privacy: this is specially true if they had a bad experience online, for instance, like buying something on eBay that didn’t look like what was announced on the picture, but found it would be next-to-impossible to effectively complain.
At some point in our history — and some claim that 9/11 was the turning point — we became artificially “security-conscious” and the tide turned. From a world where privacy and revealing as little as possible about your identity, we found out that the world out there is full of creeps — from terrorists, to scammers, to paedophiles. We got scared; a different kind of “war on terror”, which has little to do with sending ICBMs and Marines to distant countries with exotic-sounding names, has been growing, by attacking one of our hard-worn rights: the right to privacy. To the old argument that we ought to read “1984” to understand what it means to live under a regime where privacy doesn’t exist, the counter-argument is usually “George Orwell was not alive in 2001”. The world changed, and it changed to the worst: we’re now aware of all the worst criminals lurking under the pretence of anonymity, and we want to get rid of them, even if it means tagging everybody in the world with a RFID chip which would also be used to log in to your computer. While we would laugh at such an insane idea in, say, 2000, we’re actually building that dystopia by 2010 — one step at the time.