A marketer’s concept of a social experiment – a social experiment it is not
When it comes to developing new online services, don’t limit your thinking because you’re worried about online privacy. Despite what politicians and pundits may say, people don’t mind handing over personal information as long as they get something useful in return. If it’s truly beneficial to them, they’ll give you the data you need to make it happen.
This is the (to me at least) chilling conclusion reached by Upshot in its new whitepaper SOCIAL EXPERIMENT::ONLINE PRIVACY VS. PERSONALIZATION PARADOX. Upshot is a marketing company. It is involved with what it calls ‘interactive marketing’; and it claims that “because we’re fanatical about measuring success, online tracking technology is threaded throughout our programming from beginning to end”. In other words it has an axe to grind – a bloody great big axe at that.
Apart from the legislative proposals, what first got everyone riled up was the furor over Facebook’s privacy settings, which ignited a firestorm of media criticism about the potential exploitation of people’s private information by marketers. Exploitation is an emotive word and it got us wondering if people were really as concerned as the politicians and pundits would have us believe.
This is the problem when you allow emotive axe-grinding marketers rather than objective scientific statisticians to devise a survey – Facebook simply isn’t what first got everybody riled up. Facebook is a special case. I don’t like Facebook. I mistrust Facebook. I fear the social injustice that Facebook can bring with it: vigilantism, bullying, brand manipulation (both positive and negative). But I have a choice and I exercised that choice – I left Facebook. Other people have the same choice. Most choose to stay with Facebook. That’s their choice; and while I might disagree with their choice, I have to accept it. But Upshot using Facebook as the example of privacy issues is an example of manipulating the situation: most people have already accepted Facebook and will therefore be inclined to accept the argument of the paper.
The real crux of the privacy issue is choice. If people willingly give up their privacy there is no abuse of privacy because there is no privacy to abuse. (Now we could argue that most people need to be protected from the wiles and trickery of privacy-abusing marketers – and this whitepaper might be an example – but that’s way beyond the scope of this blog.) If you ask me for my middle name and I give it to you it is not private. If I do not give it to you, it is private. If I give it to you and you give it to somebody else without my agreement, that is an abuse of my privacy. If you take it without my approval, that is an abuse that should be considered a theft.
So what really gets people riled up is not issues where there is a choice (like Facebook), but issues where there is no choice – like deep packet inspection; like hidden opt-out rather than open opt-in schemes.
And what also really gets me personally riled up is where marketers twist the debate to suit their argument. And this paper does just that. “Despite what politicians and pundits may say, people don’t mind handing over personal information…” it claims. But look at its own graphic (click it for better definition)…
In every single category there are more respondents who definitely would not participate than there are respondents who definitely would participate. Only a marketing company with an axe to grind could interpret that as “people don’t mind handing over personal information…” The danger is the same with all lies: if they repeat it often enough we begin to believe them. Don’t.