Cui Bono?

I have an app called Ghostery on my computer. Fed up with an insane numberGhostery of pop-up ads ruining my reading and surfing experience, I installed the little extension that is supposed to block not just ads but also trackers – code from companies that are trying to learn more about you from your online habits. It usually runs quietly in the background but occasionally Ghostery will behave a trifle overzealously, blocking legitimate content on a site because the underlying code is structured like a pop up.

On these occasions the only thing to do is to pause blocking. When you do that Ghostery spits out a list of everything that’s running in the background, as if to say, “Do you really want to do this? Because here’s everyone who’s watching you right now.” It’s an effective tactic because it is pretty scary when you realize that at any point of time you are on the web, you are being tracked by at least a dozen or more companies, with names like Certona and Monotate and Bazaarvoice. And the longer you stay on a site, the longer the list grows.
To a web marketer this is probably routine, but to a lay user like me the level of intrusion is a revelation. These trackers are labelled under categories like “widgets” and “beacons” and “analytics” tools. Some are even honest about their purpose, calling themselves “advertising.” By far the most intrusive are the web beacons, also known as web bugs, which track your movement across sites. These are the little crawlers that ensure that a recent search for “women’s camel hair coat” follows you from site to site, making targeted ads for similar apparel pop up on every future site you visit. Wondering why you are seeing an ad for diet pills on Facebook? You probably visited a health food site or read an article on losing weight.

Tech titans like Mark Zuckerberg have been in the news recently for asking the NSA to cease spying on American citizens. The level of hypocrisy is breathtaking because anyone who is on the web to make money is doing exactly what the NSA is accused of. Companies like Facebook and Google have a pretty deep profile on each of their users. At the moment the information is probably used only in aggregate but it is just a step away from being individualized if needed.

You might argue that we bring it upon ourselves by posting every detail of our lives on social media, from where we eat to where we shop to where we give. But the mining for our personal data is everywhere, not just on social media. You can choose never to post on Facebook and still there will be companies on the web who know a lot more about you than you would care to reveal. The above mentioned Certona “delivers the most personalized customer experiences tailored to each individual using continuous behavioral profiling and predictive technology, resulting in increased engagement and conversions.” You can be sure this “behavior profiling” is not coming from social media. I once took a survey a few years ago that claimed to be able to tell me who I was from my surfing habits. Given my heavy emphasis on political blogs and sports, it concluded I was a middle-aged man. Okay, it wasn’t very accurate but the tracking technology has improved significantly in the last few years.

You might also argue that it has always been in this way. The endangered newspaper survived these many years because of the advertising it sold. Once the web promised better targeting, its days became numbered. But this level of tracking feels uncomfortable, like being a “Big Brother” participant every moment of my life.

What annoys me the most is that I am not sure how useful all the data mining is to the miner. Consider this example: Based on my search terms on its site, apparel company Land’s End now knows that I am in the market for a winter jacket. It aggressively bombards me with pictures of and sales information on the jackets everywhere I go next, whether it is a social media site or news feed. Does this make me more likely to buy one of the advertised items? Not unless you believe nagging is the best way to get someone to do something. It’s like shopping in a store that is entirely made up of checkout lanes with their impulse-buy positioning.

The reason that this saturation approach has worked so far for internet marketers is because it is a numbers game. Because the internet offers access to such a large global audience, even a small percentage of conversions can make the company money. These are customers who would not have been accessible in the pre-internet days or accessible at a prohibitive cost. It’s not unlike the Nigerian emails begging for money. The scammer sends out the email to 100 million people. All he/she needs is .1% to fall for it. The same goes for internet advertisers. The remaining 99.9% of us, who tear our hair out at the dating, weight-loss, and shoe ads that follow us around, are expendable.

Resistance by way of blockers is futile because programmers (probably coding away in an erstwhile Soviet Socialist Republic) simply create new apps to override the old. Pop-up blockers have led to pop-over ads, which are not as delicious as they sound. The biggest deterrent to effective ad blocking are the publishers themselves, because their (net) worth is judged by how many viewers and clickers they can snag in their net. Let’s face it, we may delude ourselves into thinking that we are the shoppers, but we are actually the product.

Still, the popularity of anti-trackers like Ghostery and Do Not Track Plus are a sign that the bacon is fighting back. Ghostery recently got a bump from master leaker and privacy advocate Edward Snowden himself. Facebook has woken up to the barrage of ads its users experience and is quietly trying to control the flow. Eventually users will get desensitized to the ads swirling around them and make them ineffective. The worry is who will survive the war to get online viewership. We’ve already seen the demise of traditional media and brick and mortar stores. We’ve seen the rise of a few monopolistic online giants like Amazon, Facebook and Google. As individual users, as human beings, we have ceded more and more power to entities that manipulate and control us. When the war is over, will we be the prize or the collateral damage?

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