Even if there seems to be a decline in use among the easily bored and distracted young, according to new research, Facebook is the most visited Web site in the world, garnering 10.8% of all time spent on the Internet. But at a price. A Cambridge University study published Monday says user “likes” on Facebook reveal a lot about them, such as gender, personality type, political views, sexual orientation -- even the tendency toward drug use and whether users’ parents had separated when they were young. All this from looking at millions upon millions of likes and applying algorithms, etc., etc. -- you know, the Big Data thing again.
The usual privacy wonks had the usual field day with the study results, but it is hard to sympathize with Facebookers, since they volunteered the information in the first place. You would have to be a moron not to know that sooner or later someone would try to do exactly what the Cambridge guys did and see if the "likes" supported any kind of trend lines (which apparently they do.)
There was a time -- say 15 years ago -- when the Internet was kinda new and users couldn't foresee that nearly everything they put out there could be captured, stored, analyzed and used for commercial (or nefarious) gain. But come on, folks -- this is 2013, and surely you know by NOW that this stuff goes on.
The collection and analysis of consumer data for commercial gain has been the heart of retailing nearly from the beginning of time. You just couldn't see it. Trust me when I say that if you are a regular Walmart shopper, they know more about you than your spouse does. And they aggregate what you do with millions of others' in-store and online actions to forecast what will sell next week and at what price.
Take a look at your credit card statements for the past 10 years (just like the card companies are doing), and it is pretty easy to figure out who you are, where you live, your income, family structure, hobbies, travels and habits. And unlike Facebook, you assumed all that stuff was private. Right.
Just like offline, there is a ton of data collection about you going on online, much of which you don't know about. But you should. The majority of it is simply tracking where you go and what you look at in order to put you into boxes labeled "car buyer," "business traveler" and the like.
Since you probably visit porn sites or research sensitive medical conditions (or how to prep and serve your wife for dinner), you may be concerned that any kind of tracking may reveal more about you than you care to have found out. But most of the ad tracking doesn't really care about your weird habits and hobbies, just your more mainstream purchase intentions. After all, there aren’t many advertisers kicking down the door to advertise on your favorite fetish site. Yes, being tracked can feel creepy, but there are increasingly better and better tools to let you opt out of being tracked.
On the other hand, if you voluntarily put personal information about yourself out there -- including photos where you have clearly been over-served, or something seemingly more innocent such as "liking" a certain movie -- you should know by now that your every move is being watched (if only by the Chinese Army). So if this creeps you out, stop doing it. Nobody holds a gun to your head and says "reveal yourself on Facebook."
Now you may argue that you have a "right" to use the Internet without your interactions being recorded and stored. But you don't. At least not until you step up and start paying for the content and platform interactivity you consume (which you won't). So the sites you visit have to recoup their costs with advertising.
I advocate a simple value exchange where you voluntarily tell sites what you will be shopping for the in the next few weeks, so that you see ads for that stuff. But since you won't take the time to do that on every site you go to, they have to deduce something about you from where you go and what you do, so that the ads you see are SOMEHOW meaningful to you.
I wish I could say that is the beginning and end of tracking, but it is not. The best advice is to never put or do anything online you wouldn't want to see in your local newspaper.