In every period in the history, there has been tension between different social groups based on the dynamics of the power structures in that age. When that tension would escalate, it would take form of discrimination – basis race, gender, caste, economic class or sexual orientation. The discriminated group, no matter how weak would always aggregate as an interest group and fight for the balance of power to tip in their favor.
What if the discrimination was so covert that the ‘discriminated’ person wasn’t even aware of the bias at play? What if there were walls behind which deprivation could be ‘personalized’ and ‘customized’ in ways that would disallow for the deprived to know one another or rally together?
The Daily You is an interesting account of such a deprivation, what it calls “the practice of social discrimination through profiling” in the digital age:
This book tells the story of an advertising system that has embarked on a fundamental and systematic process of social discrimination. It’s a new world, and we’re only at the beginning. Nevertheless, the logic of social discrimination is already firmly entrenched in the advertising system and the media that serve it. The direction is basic: In their quest to separate “targets” from “waste,” marketers buy access to data about users’ backgrounds, activities, and friends that will allow them to locate the customers they deem most valuable. They surround those targets with commercial messages that match their views of them and that offer them incentives and rewards—discounts, personal messages, the possibility of relationships—that are designed to make them feel good about the product. And digital publishers help the marketers: by drawing on information about individuals acquired through registrations and purchase from data firms, they provide the targets with personalized content. This personalized content is designed for two purposes: to keep individuals on the site and thereby increase the chance that they will interact with the sponsor’s ad; and to resonate with and reinforce the commercial message
The book highlights several problems with this new data-led approach of labeling people:
Credible content is dying – advertisers are squeezing content publishers both creatively and economically and killing their editorial autonomy. They are “destroying traditional publishing ethics by forcing media outlets to adapt their editorial content to advertisers’ public-relations needs and slice-and-dice demands.”
The publishing industry has already been torn by the emergence of a completely new ecosystem with a new set of rules – a) sophisticated audience data technology enables marketers via the ad networks and ad exchanges to reach out to audience in real-time wherever they are on the web, hence eroding the basic value of a website as a destination to reach a particular set of audience b) emergence of new players who use technology to curate or aggregate content offering free apps, as against old model of humans performing those roles c) disintegration of media – “consumers no longer typically confront media products as unified branded products or programming flows. Many read individual newspaper articles, listen to individual songs, and view individual program episodes unmoored from a “channel”
In such an environment, the publishers have increasingly been under the pressure on the business side. They affiliate with ad networks who drop cookies to track behaviors and background of the visiting audience and sell this data to advertisers and in turn share revenues with the publishers. The margins earned are so low that they no longer even cover the cost of production of content in many cases. In the yesteryears, leading media houses could command a premium and create expensive content. With the money literally drying up, they are being forced to produce inexpensive content and to surrender to the needs of the advertiser (extort more information about their visitors, create sponsored content) to sustain their existence. Hence the traditional boundaries between the “church” (editorial integrity) and the “state” (business side of publishing) are colliding and colluding in ways that compromise consumer trust and interest.
Limiting people’s choices basis their ‘reputation’ - by personalising not just ads but the entire media experience (news, entertainment etc.) on the basis of “marketing reputations we don’t even know we have”, what’s at stake is both how we see the world and how we see ourselves. This concept was elaborated by Eli Pariser in his best-seller ‘The Filter Bubble’ – how people are less likely to encounter new ideas and views, when we all live in our own, unique information universe that confirms and reinforces our existing bias. Here, the author focuses more on how every individual is ranked on the hierarchy of desirability for marketers, which in turn influence the product choices that are put in front of them. The advertisements, offers and discounts that a person receive now become concurrent with the ‘label’, ‘segment’ or ‘reputation silo’ in which they have been placed:
“Advertisements and discounts are status signals: they alert people as to their social position. If you consistently get ads for low-priced cars, regional vacations, fast-food restaurants, and other products that reflect a lower-class status, your sense of the world’s opportunities may be narrower than that of someone who is feted with ads for national or international trips and luxury products.”
“In fact, the ads may signal your opportunities actually are narrowed if marketers and publishers decide that the data points—profiles—about you across the internet position you in a segment of the population that is relatively less desirable to marketers because of income, age, past-purchase behavior, geographical location, or other reasons.”
Harboring social hostility by offering unequal choices and experiences - While advertisers and platform owners celebrate how content personalization brings higher “relevance” to the user experience, as stated in the previous point, it also discourages people from exploring ideas and information beyond their comfort zone. Living in their ‘idea cocoons’, we don’t realise the possible pitfalls of this “cyber-polarisation”. According to the book, this kind of personalisation will –
“allow, perhaps even encourage, individuals to live in their own personally constructed worlds, separate from people and issues they don’t care about and don’t want to be bothered with. Such a preference may accelerate when antagonisms based on employment, age, income, ethnicity, and more rise up as a result of competition over jobs and political muscle. In these circumstances, reputation silos may accelerate the distance people feel between one another. They may further erode the tolerance and mutual dependence between diverse groups that enable a society to work.”
The question of privacy – there are several arguments extended to thwart the idea that this form of behavioural advertising is a serious threat to privacy. One is that people actually don’t care about their privacy; they would trade it for a free soda or a $5 discount on their grocery bill. The other is that the youth don’t care about privacy, it’s the older demographic who is old-fashioned about the idea of privacy. Another idea is that the marketers and regulators have already dealt with the problem through laws that protect sensitive financial or health information and that people only worry about use of their data because it appears “creepy” to them but is actually not harmful. The idea heralded most by marketers is “public should appreciate marketers for promoting anonymity and relevance as the two pillars of acceptable tracking by the advertising system.” The book exposes the chinks in each of these arguments. It gives a graphic account of how cookies, beacons, IP addresses are the new age surveillance technology which map and mark every activity undertaken by its ‘target’ on the web and integrate with other behavioural data from offline world. The author quotes a study to show that while the youth are digital-natives, they lack online and legal literacy about privacy and it is this illiteracy rather than disregard for traditional privacy which is the reason behind their attitudes. My own belief is that the emergence of players such as SnapChat and growing preference for messenger services is a clear sign that the youth do care about creating a private confine. The book rues that laws such as defined by FTC don’t do justice to consumers’ right to information about use of their data and in fact allows marketers to gather most of this data on an opt-out basis. It highlights how publishers create complex, ambiguous privacy policies to “hide particulars of buyers’ audience-tracking and targeting activities from visitors to their sites.” It also raises an interesting point about how social media and other web platforms give its users’ an illusion of control through privacy settings:
Facebook, which gathers an enormous amount of information about what everyone on its site does and then turns around and sells the ability to reach them anonymously with advertising based on the profiles that Facebook members have created for themselves. As Facebook members construct their profiles and then hide behind privacy settings, they probably don’t know that these lockouts are irrelevant when it comes to advertisers. In offering the data anonymously, Facebook claims the right to use even aspects of profiles that members have chosen not to make public
Another larger point raised is that it isn’t just about how their data is used to target them with advertising; it is how people’s data is used to engineer their entire social experience:
“…marketers’ analyses of the “social graph” of an individual’s friends may lead advertisers to shape the earned, paid, and owned media that those friends see to the extent that it affects the way they collaborate with each other.”
The insatiable hunger for data finding new frontiers in TV, mobile and brick and mortar stores – Google is well-known to have revolutionized the online advertising business and have completely dominated the game, also taking away a major share of advertising money from television. There are several players who are trying to address their threat both on web and TV. Today, there are technologies available for offering the same form of targeting and personalisation that exists on the web to TV – for example tracking individuals researching a new car purchase on the web and placing related ads on TV in front of those individuals.
The book offers a futuristic but an alarming view of the new frontiers to which this world of data-mining and reputation building is headed:
Eventually, marketers will want to go further than just the household. They will persuade you to log on to your TV set and its browser (via clicked buttons, voice identifiers, fingerprint analyzers, or even face detectors) in order to get special discounts for products as well as programs aimed not just at your family but specifically at you. Search engines will then individualize their results so that your suggested television agenda will depend on the search company’s understanding of you. And when you start a viewing session, Google Television, Comcast, or another entity will take advantage of that by watching you. It will use software that will have what Google calls a “content aware interactivity layer,” which can determine what is being shown on-screen and then offer additional related information; it allows the viewer to ask Google questions.
The book is a detailed account of how media-buying system is the “prime mover in the emerging digital world”. The obsession of marketers with quantifying ROI and the media optimization dream project has led to progressive de-humanisation from individuals to consumers to commodities. Like the author states, “at the core this story is the health of consumer-business relations in twenty-first century”. There is a need for regulation and to arrive at a common understanding of disclosure that advertisers need to make to their consumers about how they mine and use the information about their lives. If the disparity in the power equation between advertisers and consumers is allowed to widen, we are likely sitting on a civil uprising of a different kind.