There is always a balance between data collection and its use in advertising. Consumers have been fairly willing to tell publishers a little about themselves to get newsletters, access to content, deals and so on. This is always a conscious decision. The semi-conscious decision is that this will be used to send them appropriate advertising wherever they go on the Web.
The extent to which this can lead to a third party knowing so much about their habits, likes, friendships, allegiances -- and most worrisome of all, movements -- is only now starting to sink in with the public. The one that really spooks people is retargeting, particularly when it happens on different sites and devices. My wife and I were separately looking at sofa beds the other day and then spookily, the brand we like the most followed us around seemingly every site either of us visited. I'm quite used to how spooky this is, my wife (not in this industry) was truly put off dealing with them. Mind you, it was a great sofa bed; just right. So we bought it and still the retargeting went on and on.
I have to be honest, it's my least favourite part of digital advertising. Not just because I find it spooky to be retargeted but because it's just annoying to be followed around by content that you've already looked at and decided not to buy, or even worse -- as with our sofa -- you've bought the thing, so just leave us alone.
The pendulum would appear to have swung -- or be on the verge of swinging -- too far in to the hands of the data collectors. I'm "the guy" who "writes about that stuff" among friends and family, and so my conversations are not a bad barometer of public concern and I've never known so many people more worried about, in particular, Facebook knowing where they are, where they've been and generally stripping out every last piece of data about them it's possible to uncover.
That's why I wasn't at all surprised to see that ad blocking software has reached a level of one in twenty users, and according to a recent report, younger surfers are far more likely to install the software than older generations -- no doubt because they know it exists and where they can download it from.
The irony is, of course, that it's not really advertising they need to block. I suspect most people who install blockers are actually encouraged to do so by fears over how their data is used. I suspect most people are grown up enough to realise advertisements are there to support the services they are, generally, consuming free of charge online. We're all very used to print, television and radio adverts but people accept them because they're generally not tracking them around. They rely on the medium being bought by audience type, not a record of what each person had for tea last night and which supermarket they tend to use.
Thus, if you take a look at cookie deletion rates, and average between the figures provided by Nielsen and RedEye, the data suggests that one in two internet users deletes cookies at least once a month.
The advertising industry can say all it wants about free sites coming at a price and that targeted advertising is better than non-targeted messages; the industry has nobody to blame but itself.
Those awful surprise moments when you realise just how much third parties know about you are prompting a very silent revolt of people blocking adverts or deleting cookies and generally going 'tut' at the level of information Facebook, and others, has collected about them.
So anonymity isn't really the answer -- transparency and control is the key. Do people really want to be someone else on Facebook? I don't think so, certainly not for the majority of users. They just want to be themselves and not have every part of their lives delved in to. Sure, serve me apt advertising based on my likes and interests but don't spook me with adverts elsewhere that link directly to where I've just been, but I didn't tell you about, or an interaction I've just had with a brand elsewhere.
I blogged and warned about this ages ago. My advice, for what it's worth, is very simple.
If you're a grocer, people will value you for putting aside a box of their favourite fruit and vegetables because you know it's what you love. Produce a tube of haemorrhoid cream, because the chemist mentioned you were having problems, and you can expect to lose a customer in an instant.