Big Brother is watching you. And me. Collecting our information and researching our habits so he can build a profile of who we are and how we think. Then, when we least expect it, he’s going to take that information...and try to sell us things. We’re not exactly in tinfoil hat land here; we’re talking about the reality of living in a digital world where marketing has become more sophisticated than ever before.
Long story short: there are a ton of companies that are tracking your every move online. It’s a little creepy because it’s a lot more companies than you think. Usually, companies aren’t trying to be nefarious about it; they’re just trying to sell you more stuff more effectively. And if you’re mad about Google or Target tracking your every move, you’re missing the point because every large company and organization on the Web is doing it. Take a closer look at today’s political campaigns and you’ll find that we’re not living in quaint old 2008. Collecting thousands of email addresses, sending text messages and having a Facebook page isn’t considered tech savvy anymore. The new frontier is targeted marketing, and you get that by tracking people online. Companies and organizations are using every tool they have at their disposal to sell you both products and ideas.
And this brings us to our ethical dilemma for this blog post. What happens when the average web user starts using the tools at their disposal to thwart this tracking? It’s the “if a tree falls in a forest…” conundrum for the modern age. If an ad shows up in my browser, but I never see it, does it make an impact? Should I be annoyed that my data is being collected, if the thing it’s being collected for (advertising) doesn’t have any effect on me?
Now, full disclaimer: I am a big proponent of online privacy. Even though I create online ads as part of my job, I use an ad blocker and never see the banner ads I write copy for. And yes, I’m fully aware of the hypocrisy there. The idea that companies are privy to things I wouldn’t necessarily share with my closest friends or relatives (Google searches, a list of sites I’ve visited, that kind of thing) makes me uncomfortable. And beyond the tracking issue, banner ads with their multiple messages all vying for my attention stress me out. I know how to turn them off, so I do.
The problem with this is that the Internet isn’t free. Or at least pretty much everything on the Web that we get for free is being subsidized in one way or another. There’s an eye opening quote that I’m too lazy to fact check and properly attribute (let’s say Abraham Lincoln said it), that goes something to the effect of “If you’re not paying for a product, YOU are the product.”
Take Gmail for example. Free email! Well…sort of. Google is giving you free email because what it’s really selling is access to you. Gmail is funded by the ads that appear in the sidebar. Same goes for your favorite gossip site, and that tech site you visit, that free online game you play and the videos you watch.
When you don’t give a company explicit permission to collect your data and they do it anyway, it feels like a betrayal. But at the same time, when you opt out of the implicit social contract of the Internet, when you refuse to subsidize content you consume by being a “product,” where does that leave the content? As they say on every NPR pledge drive ever: great content comes at a price. Whether that content is hard-hitting journalism or pictures of cats is sort of beyond the point. It costs money either way.
I’m not sure what the answer to the conundrum is, and based on the articles I’ve read, it seems like no one else is really sure either. Like so much of the Internet, it feels like we’re all making this up as we go, evolving as needed. As companies find better ways to track us, we’ll find better ways to escape their spotlight. And in turn, they’ll find still better ways to track our habits and market to us. And as the cycle continues, with more helpful (or just more ubiquitous) ads our concept of what we expect in terms of privacy might change too and what we once thought of as creepy and invasive might become normal and appreciated. Or not. You never know.