According to reporting by The New York Times, Cambridge Analytica — a voter-profiling firm — amassed information on 50 million Facebook users in an attempt to predict people’s personalities and psychological profiles. The company secured the data from a Cambridge University researcher named Aleksandr Kogan, who harvested it from a personality quiz app.
Facebook absolutely should have shown more oversight regarding what happened with data collected from its platform, but let’s not act like the social media company has committed an original sin. Are we really surprised that political operatives used data to target some of us with advanced political marketing?
Shouldn’t we instead be upset at the Facebook users who installed a shady third-party app and turned over their information willingly? Just look on your phone. Did you think twice before handing over data access to the developers of some app-based progeny of Tetris?
Almost none of us would sift through terms of service documents to find out if our data might be sold or transferred. We see what data an app requires, accept, and move on.
Welcome to our modern economy. Data points are the golden currency that drives it.
I’m writing this column at Starbucks. The company that sells me coffee can tell you how many times I’ve been to this store this month, how many shots of espresso I usually order in my Venti Iced Americano, and the time and day of the week I’m mostly likely to show up. If it wanted to, Starbucks could probably use my cellphone’s GPS to personally greet me when I walked in the door.
We know companies have treasure troves of data about us. That data informs them about our consumption habits, which helps them market products and services to us in a more effective fashion.
On the retail side, nobody does it better than Amazon.
People lie with their words and online personas all the time; they rarely lie with their spending. Amazon has a catalogue of my online purchases for a decade and a half. Much to my chagrin, the retailer knows that I bought the DVD of Pauly Shore’s “Son-In-Law” in December 2004. Now, the online juggernaut predicts and markets to my family’s spending patterns with laser-like precision. The sheer number of DeWalt tools in my garage is ample evidence of their prodigious advertising capabilities. I haven’t bought the air chisel hammer yet, but you’d better believe Amazon’s algorithms absolutely “know” I want it.
While I’m typing at Starbucks, I’m listening to music on YouTube signed into my Google account. By comparison, Google knows a lot more about me than Starbucks or even Amazon. My Google Pixel syncs beautifully with my work and personal accounts. Whether it’s my phone or laptop, Google is capturing virtually everything I do.
It’s a two-way street.
Companies are vacuuming up my data, and I’m enjoying the benefit of their system essentially “knowing” what I’m doing and attempting to predict what I’m going to need, want or search for next. My queries literally build on each other in an unimaginably complex matrix that’s making me radically more efficient.
Almost all of us engage in this elaborate data dance. Social media simply represent the business model where the exchange is most apparent. These companies make money by selling access to us based on our personal data that we’ve voluntarily handed over.
You’re probably reading this column because one of your friends shared it on Facebook or you noticed it on Twitter. If you’re not freaked out yet, you might share it between posting pictures of your dinner last night and the funny face your dog made this morning. Those pictures might not be valuable to the marketplace, but where you ate dinner and the fact you have a dog are highly relevant.
Social media companies — just like Google, Amazon and other online merchants — use our information to predict everything about us. Call it microtargeting. Get fancier and talk about psychographics. The bottom line is that it’s all marketing to get us to buy things and do stuff.
Should companies be responsible with the data they collect? Absolutely. But what most of us are really concerned about is somebody draining our bank accounts, blackmailing us or violating our reasonable consumer expectations. For example, I’d be really upset if Facebook was selling my Facebook Messenger conversations to the highest bidder without my knowledge.
I actually prefer to be efficiently targeted with marketing, be it political, commercial or otherwise. I appreciate content tailored to my interests rather than random ads thrown my way to see what sticks. Graphics teasing sparkly eyeliner, for example, are quite lost on me.
More importantly, nobody is coercing me to vote for a candidate or buy the latest greatest product. It’s marketing, not mind control — no matter how much the folks at Cambridge Analytica might seem like super villains. For politicians or media types to claim otherwise removes our agency as individuals and suggests we’re not capable of intelligently navigating a digital world.
If we want to limit the ways companies monetize our personal data (particularly through government regulation), we’re going to pay the bill in terms of either fewer market innovations or higher costs. How much would you pay for access to your Twitter account? Would you pay $10 a month for a “data blackout” version of Facebook? Maybe we’ll see fee-based social media come to life, but don’t count on it anytime soon.
Meanwhile, we’ll continue to wrestle with these questions as more and more of our lives are digitized. We should. We’ve shown a national willingness to readily hand our information to complete strangers in an effort to amass followers, take online tests and line up sequences of colored jewels that disappear before our eyes. Call for more transparency, demand that Facebook answer questions about the security of our information. But also acknowledge our clear consumer preference to turn over our data before our dollars.
Image credit: ESB Professional