when did opt out become the new opt in?

March 26, 2011

Ladies and gentlemen, I have good new and bad news. The bad news is that you’re being tracked ever more online and web companies will keep capturing more and more of your personal data with whatever features they’ll decide to spring on you next. And no, there’s nothing you can do about it because unless you switch to using Tor and set your browser to delete your browsing history, cookies, and cache on exit, you will still leave your electronic fingerprints all over the web. But the good news is that very few of those traces will be watched by actual humans since there’s far too much data to parse by hand to connect the dots and it’s more reliable, cost-effective, and lucrative to scan them by an algorithm which decides what ads to show you and when. And all this electronic surveillance is about just one thing: advertising to you. If you don’t like it, you can always just follow a convoluted procedure to opt out and wait for about two weeks until your accounts are actually gone. If only you were actually required to grant these companies the right to share more information about you with a horde advertisers than simply alerting you to the fact they will, saying that you can leave if you don’t like it.

Ready for another quick and dreadful confession from yours truly folks? During my undergrad years, I spent a lot of time in marketing classes which is why I also had to take a number of applied psychology and behavior courses. And I can actually summon an educated opinion on this business model and confidently say that it’s only surviving because so few people actually pay attention or care to what the advertisers are doing, or know that it’s happening and simply accept it as if they have no other choice. Stalking a customer is not a strategy a winning salesman adopts, it’s a strategy which eventually lead to FCC-overseen do not call lists, jokes about telemarketers being the lowest from of life above politicians and used car salesmen, and restricted or private phone numbers. Digital stalking is only mildly better because it doesn’t come with annoying phone calls, just more or less customized text ads, and it still violates what should be the golden rule of marketing as outlined by Seth Godin: let the customers come to you and tell you what they want you to know. When trying to sell, you should approach a customer by saying who you are and what you do, not “hey, so I saw you were searching a few things last night about car loans and just wanted you to know we could totally offer you great terms on that new Jetta you had your eye on at VW.com!” The first approach prompts an interested customer to learn a little more about you. The other prompts her to close her blinds and tear out her ethernet cord.

And that’s really the big problem with today’s online marketing strategies. They’re creepy and stalker-ish. You feel like you’re being scrutinized by some sketchy character on a street corner who’s approaches you like he’s about to flash you but his trench coat is really filled with gizmos or cheapo knick-knacks he desperately wants to sell you. Only he also knows your name, where you were going, and the last few places you’ve been, and if you go back to the shops he knows you visited you’re told that yes, they gave your name to him and if you don’t like it you don’t have to shop at their store anymore, but they assumed you were totally cool with it because you came into the front door in the first place. Basically, social media sites and search engines are doing the very same thing and abusing the notion of implicit consent without bothering for just a second to think that some of their customers would be upset by being opted into their next big idea for making a few bucks off the data they amassed in their servers automatically. This is why Google Buzz died a horrible death and Facebook pissed off countless users again and again by giving away all their personal data on a whim. For a supposedly brand new way of doing business and changing the world of international commerce, the tech world seems to have adopted the Henry Ford model of marketing: consider their users backwards idiots not entitled to a voice, then tell them what to buy or what to do because they’re too stupid to figure out how the next big thing they’re being pitched will benefit them. Just let users make a decision. Don’t make it for them, you arrogant twits.

It seems that when you have a company with thousands if not millions of customers and a website with more than a million registered users, you start to lose perspective and forger that each user is actually a person out there in the real world rather than one of the many blips on your dashboard, and that each of those users has to be treated with at least a modicum of respect. I’m not talking about something drastic, like the employees of Facebook or Google coming to every user’s house to get their opinion on a new idea that the company wants to implement after an interview and a lunch, but something rather small and virtually effortless. Something like asking whether user John Q. Public would like to share some of his information with some of your advertisers and if yes, what kid of information he’s willing to give them. Little things that will help those users feel as if they aren’t just an ID and a number to the companies which have some of their personally identifying info, and that you respect the idea that they have an opinion on something you’re trying to do by using their data. Otherwise, you look as if you’re the typical socially inept nerd so wrapped up in his own projects that he can’t be bothered to check in with the real world once in a while as per the image of tech executives in The Social Network more than willing to withhold features of your site until a user digitally signs her entire life away so your partners can try to make a quick buck off of stalking her and her friends across the net.

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  • Paul

    Saw a product called, I think, HotPlug. It’s a piece of software that can be hidden in browser add-ons, which replaces website ads with it’s own, on the user-side, passing on 50% of the revenue to the add-on author.

    Why the need to sneak it in? If, as advertisers claim, people benefit from targeted advertising, and if, as it seems, my eyeballs are so valuable, PAY ME!

    Make HotPlug a direct user-controlled browser plug-in. Give ME control over what kind of ads appear, what companies and products, and the ability to perma-block specific ads/companies/products. Then PAY ME the 50% of revenue. They could include a function to donate or subscribe to participating websites using my credit. Then they could include loyalty points (like fly-bys) for purchases from participating companies. Etc etc.

    Why the incessant need to trick people into viewing ads? Why can’t these people, who invest so much in psychology, see why they are so despised?

    (Tried to suggest this on the HotPlug website (I wasn’t expecting anything, but what the hell), but they wanted confirmation of an active email address. I guess they are worried about spam…)