Online tracking gets a bad rap. It’s easily conflated in people’s minds with wider issues around data abuse and online manipulation.
What’s really fascinating is that when I have conversations about online tracking, the first thing that comes to most people’s minds is the Cambridge Analytica scandal. And the image that they call to mind is the guys sat around the table, promising some pretty nefarious things, that weren’t anything to do with data tracking.
And that’s the thing that really grinds my gears. Most of the people that I talk to about online tracking don’t actually understand it, and in their ignorance are conflating genuinely bad things with something that will actually help them in the long run.
And there’s nothing worse than watching someone self-righteously pissing on the hand that feeds them. (That’s the saying, right?)
To kick away some of the cobwebs around this whole thing, I’m taking seven common complaints that people have about online tracking and, well, being pretty rude about them.
Hopefully, at the end of the piece we’ll all be able to take a step back from our knee-jerk reactions and see online tracking for what it is, not what we’re scared it is.
So, let’s get on with it shall we?
1. “I didn’t know they were collecting and selling my data.”
Didn’t you? Didn’t you?
Because I’ve known about it for years. Before I worked in marketing. Before I worked in tech.
I used to pretend to be a horse for a living and I still knew about it.
It’s in the terms and conditions of every site (which I know no one reads) and was written about in numerous articles (here’s one from 2011). It’s not that the information wasn’t out there. It just didn’t pierce the collective consciousness until Cambridge Analytica made it mainstream news.
And everyone that I’ve ever spoken to about this in-person is in exactly the same boat: They just kind of pretended they didn’t know. Because Facebook stops being fun if you object to how you’re paying for it. And you don’t want to actually pay for it.
(Side note: This obviously isn’t just about Facebook, but it’s a good example and easy cultural shorthand.)
2. “They sell my data.”
Yes. Yup. Uh-huh.
Except, you know, they don’t.
‘Hi Facebook, can I please have all the data you have on Chad Bradford?’
‘Sure thing, that’ll be two and a half bitcoin.’
Has never fucking happened (to the best of my knowledge).
Facebook don’t hand over data in exchange for money. They let you stick an ad in the feed of one of their users, sure. But they don’t sell the data.
If you’re aiming for people in their early twenties, who are also motocross-loving, Gatorade-guzzling dude-bros, then sure, you’ll be able to target Chad.
But they don’t just give you a file marked Chad and walk away. That may sound pedantic, but if your whole argument is based on a transaction that hasn’t happened, it’s a bad one.
And besides, who do you think it is that wants access? The fucking nether-goblins?
It’s people who want to make your ads more specific.
Nothing untoward. Just marketers.
Wait, wait, before you start penning your angry Tweet:
Yeah, I’m aware some marketers are scumbags and will be scumbaggy with how they use data. And yeah, there are some nefarious dickheads out there that will use your data to try and manipulate you to vote for the wrong person or something similar.
Let’s get this straight: Abuse of data is bad. Selling non-anonymized data is bad. Using your data without your permission is bad.
But we’ve got laws cracking down on that. That’s not what we’re talking about here.
We’re talking about agency, right? It’s your data. It belongs to you. Because it’s about you. And it’s being used by people you don’t know. Which is a fair objection. You have the right to privacy.
Let me just ask you one question: Do you have the same problem with the census?
Because that’s your personal information. Being published. Online. For anyone to use. And it’s been going on since the dawn of fucking time (this is hyperbole for ‘before the internet’). Google ‘data broker’. People have been buying and selling your data for decades.
So yeah, earlier when I said ‘they don’t sell your data’ what I meant was, ‘the thing you’re upset about doesn’t happen the way you think it happens, but it does happen in a different way, and you probably shouldn’t be upset about it, but if you are upset about it, you should have been upset about it for a lot longer than the last couple of years.’
It’s not as catchy.
3. “I want to control the ads being served to me.”
Yes, this is an actual objection. That people have said to me. Using their mouths. And to these people I have one simple question:
When in the history of fucking ever have you had control over the ads you’ve been served?
Up until the advent of targeted ads, you were being served ads that followed the model of ‘You’re a human. Buy Coke.’
The admen (and yeah, they were mostly men) just hoped that you saw all the ads and filtered out the ones that weren’t relevant to you.
You know what would be better than that? If there was some way of them getting filtered before they got to you. So you only see relevant ads.
You know, something that took into account your preferences, personal information and purchasing history and then showed you ads for things you actually want to buy. So you don’t get bombarded with endless lawn fertilizer ads sat in your 15th-story, one-bed, never-seen-a-lawn, apartment.
You know what this magical solution is? Here’s a clue: You don’t like it.
(Side note: Yes I’m using the word ‘served’ for ads. Yes, I’m aware it’s a bit of word-trickery that we use in marketing to conflate being shown ads with being served something you’ve actually asked for in a restaurant. It’s a conversation for another time.)
4. “It’s like Big Brother.” (not the TV show)
You know what else got this charge leveled against it? CCTV.
People hated all the cameras watching them all the time. What an invasion of privacy.
But you know what happened after they installed CCTV cameras everywhere? Crime went down. Which means personal safety (and therefore liberty) went up.
There isn’t a government force anywhere in the world that gives a hoot that you’re stumbling down the high street, or walking your dog, or scratching that itch. So it couldn’t matter less that there’s a camera watching you do it. No matter how scratchy the itch.
Let’s be real for a second, the reduction in crime is far more important than ‘I don’t like it looking at me’.
And yeah, I know that I’m veering dangerously close to the ‘If you’ve done nothing wrong you’ve got nothing to hide’ argument with all its inherent McCarthyistic dangers, but fo’ real: less crime is better than more crime.
(Side note: Yes, I’m also aware that ‘reduction in crime’ and ‘better ad experience’ aren’t comparable. But they’re both improvements)
5. “Targeted ads are shit.”
You know what? That’s totally, totally fair.
I’m constantly being served ads for things I’ve Googled for work or have already bought.
But that’s because the technology is new(ish).
So there will be a bit of time where you’re still being shown an advert for the pan set that you bought for your mother-in-law for her birthday last month.
But as the algorithms improve (and more people get comfortable with sharing data) the targeted ads will get better.
6. “I don’t like not having another option.”
This is a really common complaint. If you don’t want to be tracked, you can’t opt-out. If you want to have social media, or use Google, or YouTube, or whatever, you have to agree to being tracked. Even if you don’t agree with it.
You know what the other option is? Paying for the thing.
We’ve got very used to not having to pay for things as a society. So used to it that people are more than happy reading and watching and sharing their entire evenings away without paying a single penny.
And when they get asked to pay (like by The Guardian or Wikipedia) they find it an imposition.
What I find even crazier is the roaring trade in adblockers.
Now I know this is going to get me a lot of flack, but those ads are literally how the company whose content you’re consuming is affording to make it.
Don’t get me wrong, ads in the middle of videos or ones that pop up over the content I’m trying to consume make me want to rage-punch my way through the screen. But just standard ads sitting on the side of the page? That’s the price I’m paying to visit that site? Cool.
I suppose I take particular umbrage because I come from the entertainment industry where people shamelessly admit to stealing films using torrent sites, and then complain that the industry is only funding trashy reboots and remakes.
The studios decide what films get produced based on the profit made on previous films. By diminishing the profit pool of movies you like, you’re diminishing the chances of films you like getting made. In the words of DJ Khaled: “Congratulations, you played yourself.”
The exact same thing is going to happen with the content you consume online. If you don’t pay for it, it stops existing.
7. The benefit isn’t worth the cost
This is one that I actually have some sympathy for.
There’s a very good reason people don’t want targeted ads. Because ads have, historically, worked by trying to convince you that whatever you have (be it an automation tool, a car, a human body) isn’t good enough.
You need to upgrade, update, replace. The idea of liking what you already have becomes revolutionary in the face of old-school marketing.
The idea of that kind of marketer being able to more specifically target you is genuinely horrifying. So no, letting companies that I don’t know harvest my data so that those marketers can target me isn’t something I want.
But… (are you ready for me to say ‘here’s the thing’?)
Here’s the thing:
That kind of marketing is dying (and thank fuck for that).
We’re entering an era where people are actively speaking out against the adverts they don’t like, and are getting ads taken down or changed.
Where we’re getting…more personalized ads. Ads we want to see. Ads for products that we wouldn’t know about previously, that will improve our lives.
Because that’s what marketing should be. Something that helps us live our life easier by introducing us to things we want.
And that’s what targeted ads could, just possibly, be.
(Final side note: As you can probably imagine this blog post has been hotly discussed in the office. We’re working on a partner piece with the other side of the argument. I might write it myself. If the internet doesn’t beat me to it.)
(UPDATE: Okay, so that wasn’t the final side note. This post used to be called ‘Online tracking is fucking good for you – get over it’. The use of language in the headline was intentional, both as a gatekeeper (so no one reading the piece would be ambushed by the piece) and to set the tone of the piece. But we’ve had a chat about it, and after careful consideration, we’ve decided that ‘fuck’ing in public where everyone can see perhaps isn’t the right way to go. Don’t get me wrong, I still like a good ‘fuck’ and I’ve not removed any of my ‘fuck’ing in the piece. But you’ve got to give people a choice as to whether they’re going to look at your…oh, you know what, the joke’s run its course. Fuck it, I’m out.)
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