The Internet, a big black hole of infinite content and information, is being segmented by users into relevant byte-sized chunks. Some of the time spent sifting through tagged, blogged and bookmarked content was once used to make more spontaneous discoveries in newspapers, magazines and online. Our need to more efficiently manage digital's cornucopia invariably reduces our time for random search and enlightenment. Plus, it's possible that too little serendipity in cyberspace could produce a narcissistic populace well-versed in their own interests, but ignorant about the world at large.
Certainly the Internet allows users to delve deeper into their interest areas more frequently and effectively than any other platform in history. Instant interactivity promises us more time for other things. But as our online management tools become more pre-set and precise, we become less intent on random search and discovery. It's a tradeoff that comes at a subtle but significant price.
It is the difference between flipping through the pages of a newspaper and stumbling on stories you might not have read, and going directly to "favorite," friend-recommended or algorithm-matched places on the Web. Trading links and postings with friends becomes part of the same inclusionary exercise. And just to make sure users don't forget to return to brand and advertiser Web sites, the advanced ad platforms being constructed by Google, MySpace, Facebook and others will track their every online move, producing a digital preference profile that can be mined--and misused.
This evolving next-generation technology will know individual consumers better than they know themselves, Facebook founding CEO Mark Zuckerberg has quipped. If so, selectively engaged consumers only have themselves to blame. An official of the European Union, holding up Google's proposed $3.1 billion acquisition of DoubleClick to more intense scrutiny, calls it "the creation of private ministries of information" that will tread heavily on individual privacy concerns. Such behavioral marketing is expected to be a $4 billion business by decade's end.
These emerging ad networks argue they are tracing the digital footsteps consumers unknowingly leave behind. A survey conducted a year ago by the Pew Internet and American Life Project determined that 28% of online users in the U.S. regularly tagged their content. With an estimated 80% of Americans online today, it would not be surprising to find that at least 40% utilize tools such as tagging to organize and personalize their Web content.
Historically, newspapers, magazines, television and radio broadly exposed consumers to what the institutional powers decided was important. The Internet has empowered individuals with that ultimate selection, but in exercising that choice, we could miss the bigger picture.
The massive commercialization of personalized space on the Internet (including blogs, social networks, widgets, online games, virtual worlds, podcasts and wikis) will fuel this phenomenon. The development of hyper-targeted advertising systems by News Corp.'s MySpace, Facebook and others tap users' personal information for marketers to tailor personalized pitches that, even at this early juncture, solicit 300% higher response rates than conventional mass marketing. Blue chip marketers, such as Ford, Microsoft and P&G, are already getting good results.
A more efficient match of consumer and marketer makes for a better, long-term commercial experience across all interactive platforms and devices. A smart match of like-minded consumers through online social networks makes for a more intimate and satisfying use of technology, increasingly accessed on mobile phones and other portable digital devices. Either way, it is up to individual consumers to decide if, when and how much they want to engage outside their own cyber sphere. Such broad engagement can increase receptivity to and understanding of points of view different from our own. It's the kind of universal enlightenment the Internet does well--and that the world desperately needs.
Digital democratization may have us on a path devoted more to self, rather than universal knowledge. The cementing of ties between personalization and digital marketing and commerce will make it more difficult for consumers to break ranks.
The matter of free will and boundless choice could simply be reduced to a time-management issue: What we must accomplish on the Web versus what we'd like to do. What sounds more like a sociological than a business dilemma is at the heart of digital's next crossroads: where consumers would like to go on the Internet and where they will allow digital marketers to take them.