The Ick Factor – Privacy from a User’s Perspective

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Social Media and Search leave all kinds of digital tracks. We tell our networks a little bit about ourselves as we go about our digital day. Recently, there have been changes in the way that companies use that information. Google, for instance, recently changed its privacy settings so that it can aggregate all of the information they have about you. Is this good or bad?
I am of two minds here with regard to Google:

  1. Tracking Is Good: Things like personalized search results, good You Tube recommendations, improved ads (what defines improved remains to be seen) are all “good”. They make the services that you use more helpful. I believe this to be true.
  2. Tracking is Bad: Things like personalized search results,  You Tube recommendations, improved ads are all “bad”. They fool me into seeing things or buying things that I may not have considered. They are manipulative. I also believe this to be true. (Check out The Filter Bubble – Eli Pariser for more information about the potential negative impact of personalization.)

The real issue between good and bad is execution. For instance, with respect to Google’s (or whomever’s…this is a global issue) retargeting algorithms, I had a professional reason to look at a bunch of SEO & PPC platforms recently. Google clearly watched me do this and started showing me retargeting ads for these kinds of platforms. I am not a buyer of these platforms. I am NOT a good use of advertising dollars.
But my recent actions made me look like a buyer. I visited 10-15 similar sites in a short period of time, so now my display ads and search ads shown in the content network are heavily skewed. (Just as an FYI, Conductor & Acquisio, you maybe want to ask for credit for about 50 impressions each…they were wasted.) So tracking me was good for the advertiser because I looked like a buyer, but it was wasted and made my digital experience worse because I’m not.
I would argue that the inefficiency could have been reduced if Google knew even more about me. If they knew (or saw through my site actions) that I was hunting for logos to put in a presentation about search, they perhaps would not have wasted those impressions. It is the execution that matters, and I think that knowing more about me in a cross-channel and cross-dimensional way would make advertising more efficient and more relevant (and less annoying).
So,when Google-owned You Tube is layering ads for search platforms while I am watching videos with my kids, it is a little creepy. But worse, it annoyingly non-contextual. (How many serious search platform buyers are in the decision-zone while watching “Wheels on the Bus” videos?)
But I really crossed into the creepy zone when I installed Highlight on my iPhone. Highlight is a passive GPS platform that alerts me when other people I share common interests are around. It was something of a SXSW darling, and I only installed it because of the press that it received.
And, nearly immediately, it got creepy.
My first connection was on the train. My phone buzzed, and I looked at it. It told me that there was someone nearby. I open up the application. It gave me a picture (blonde hair), a name (Rachel X) , a place of employment (hot tech company in Boston), the things that we like in common on Facebook (Bostinno, Starbucks, and the hot tech company she works for).
In 13 seconds, I spotted her on the train. I was very uncomfortable.
I don’t know this woman. We have no reason to cross paths, personally. I was so uncomfortable knowing what I did about her in an anonymous environment. She was commuting. She was reading a book (a paper one, how quaint). She was not networking. She did not give me explicit permission to know her name, her position and company, or tell me that she likes coffee.
Obviously, she opted-in to make those things available via Highlight. And likely, she knew the same things about me. I didn’t care what she knew about me. I felt, well, a little dirty, knowing things about her. It crossed some kind of line where I had an unintentional voyeuristic look into this woman’s life. I didn’t want it.
Highlight is the perfect example of execution gone wrong. It might be terrific if when I walked near someone it would quietly remind me of their name, or perhaps the last time we spoke, or the name of their dog, or whatever we have that we need to build a common bond around. But that should be something that you have to instigate (like when I am at a party and after I have had a lovely chat with someone I ask my wife who they are…(so, here is a confession, if I ever don’t use your first name in a conversation, it means that I can’t remember it…sorry!)).
Highlight tries to be smart. It takes many things that we publish on Facebook or Twitter or some other place, assembles them quickly and presents it to us in near real time. It is cool, and smart, and interesting, and totally, totally, totally creepy.
It crosses a line, and her name is Rachel.

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