A few weeks ago, my wife and I bought a filing cabinet. Ignoring all other signs of adulthood, the fact that I was excited about a filing cabinet really drove it home: I’m old.
But you see, the excitement over that filing cabinet was because we didn’t already have one. Our important papers (warranties, financial documents, passports, etc) were scattered throughout the house. We knew where they were, but they weren’t all collected in one location.
Organizing them into that brand spanking new filing cabinet meant I could make sense of all the insanity, which included getting rid of a lot of old crap I’d been needlessly hanging on to (looking at you, checks from freelancing jobs in 2012).
In ridding my life of these old, useless papers, I separated them into one pile to just get rid of, and another pile to “shred.” I use quotes because I don’t own, and have never owned, a shredder, but I do have two pretty functional hands.
That pile got very large, and over time my hands got really tired ripping hundreds of pages of paper into little strips, which might sound sad to you if you haven’t similarly embarked on a quest of such mammoth physical endurance. Those strips then went into the trash in the hopes that someone wouldn’t be motivated enough to 1) dig through my gnarly trash for the strips and 2) tape all those strips back together in the hopes of reconstructing my bank account number, or some other “sensitive” data.
It felt like the responsible thing to do, but I admittedly didn’t investigate it very much because paper privacy is not a thing that most millennials think too much about. Even if someone had my bank account number, what nefarious things could they accomplish with it? I don’t know, but I also didn’t want to find out.
Would many people have gone to that effort? Would they have burned those papers instead, or maybe just thrown them all in the recycling like I do with all “ordinary” paper? Scams are a weird thing: the more you read about what’s possible, the more you start to wonder what you don’t know. You start to think that maybe anything is possible, and that if someone were talented and motivated enough, a single hair from your head would be enough for them to frame you for murder.
But it didn’t used to be this way, because privacy has changed.
The Good Old Days
Back when people called the internet “the net” and they made all kinds of horrible jokes about surfing through its wonders, no one wanted to use their real name. That’s where we got the obsession with screen names, as exemplified by You’ve Got Mail’s conversations between Meg Ryan’s “Shopgirl” and Tom Hanks’s “NY152.”
What could happen if you used your real name? Well, I don’t know, but probably bad stuff. That was the general sentiment of early surfers, and for some people it’s been a really hard aversion to course correct.
There are still people in 2021 who refuse to shop online for fear of their credit card getting stolen, and to be fair there are many, many accounts of that exact thing happening. But for the most part, Amazon shoppers aren’t getting scammed, and anyway credit card companies have an almost supernatural ability to flag credit card fraud nowadays. The few times my card has actually been compromised, I’m pretty sure it was the fault of a gas station, not a website.
Gradually we moved beyond using internet screen names, and the only reason for that I can think of is because we spent more time there. The dark forest, it turns out, was just a bunch of poorly-lit trees. It became less weird to input your credit card number, or to tell a website what your mailing address is. The internet also very quickly became essential to work, and if I’m spending time online trying to find, or do, a job, then you better believe I’m not going by Squirrelfish 194 (my actual AIM screen name from eons ago).
That early internet was puzzling to corporations. Everyone was anonymous, and even though it seemed like there was money to make, they didn’t know how to sell to faceless usernames. They didn’t know how to monetize something that was free to everyone with a connection, and of course they tried (many times) to limit that access. Thankfully for humanity, they failed. But still the search to press the glories and horrors of capitalism onto the free and open internet kept on.
And then Google happened.
Search engines became a useful thing, the easiest way to somehow navigate the absolute insanity of that early internet. These engines functioned with unseen intelligence and could turn our inane queries into actual, helpful results in a matter of seconds. Google rose above them all with ease, and it wasn’t even close. It knew what I wanted even when I struggled to put it into words, and hey it also showed some really great ads, too.
No one wanted to pay for a search engine, which was great because Google actually didn’t charge for it. They didn’t charge for anything, and as the internet grew and Google became a behemoth, they kept adding tools and functionality to their Google tools. Nowadays, you can pretty much use Google for everything without spending a dime (although you have to do so knowing full well that Google loves killing its own products).
You corrected them when they were wrong, and over time they became wrong less often.
Google always knows what you want. It knew what you really meant, it knew what city you were in, and it knew where your house was. To co-opt a phrase from Apple’s marketing (they’re coming up later, don’t worry), “it just works.” Hell, while I’m co-opting phrases, here’s another one, from sci-fi great Arthur C. Clarke: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
And no recounting of the internet and its incredible ubiquity is complete without mentioning Google’s magic. “Algorithm” became a commonly-used term for probably the first time ever (today used most often to sing TikTok’s praises) as a stand-in for a technology too advanced for the speaker to actually understand, or communicate, its mechanics.
How did Google do it? How’d they know what I wanted before even I knew?
Well, they feed on your data. They didn’t harvest it or spy on you or invest in any other shady practice; they didn’t have to because you so willingly gave it to them. You corrected them when they were wrong, and over time they became wrong less often.
And, by collecting oodles of terabytes of data on every living human capable of making an online purchase, it was pretty logical to then create the world’s greatest ad network ever. Everyone uses Google, so if a few non-intrusive ads are mixed in with those super-useful search results, then they can basically target people for anything their advertiser wants.
Of course I’m leaving social media out of the conversation, which isn’t quite fair because a majority of the internet’s evil starts on those platforms. This reductive history lesson on Google works for social platforms too (especially the big blue F), since their model is very similar to Google’s. Provide a great free service, get people hooked, learn from their behavior, then make your targeting methods available to paying advertisers. As the saying goes, “if something is free, then you’re the product.”
We as a species love being the product! I’ll tell you who my family is and where they all live if it means you can help me find the perfect gift for each of them. Privacy is dead and convenience is king.
By contrast, it makes those early days of the internet look quaint. We were so frightened of what one Alaska Senator called a series of tubes, intrigued but scared of the intrusive potential of the web’s dark allure.
And now, a few short decades later, we essentially hand over every scrap of information about ourselves so that the algorithm can do the heavy lifting and keep us occupied. It’s impossible to talk about our march away from privacy without taking on grim undertones, as you’ll find all throughout this blog post. But is it all bad?
Google creates software and, more recently, hardware so that it can get more people using its services. When people use its services, it makes money off the data it mines from them and subsequently feeds to their advertising network.
Existing in similar but different circles is Apple, who creates hardware and software and doesn’t (by comparison) do a whole lot with data. Therefore it was a convenient move for Apple to become the champion of digital privacy. See, it didn’t really affect their bottom line to take a hard stand against privacy, and it meant their brand stood for something that people were talking about (see: this blog).
You might hate the smell of Times Square, but you can’t deny that the ads you put up there are seen.
They’ve really doubled down on that stance, too, by adding all kinds of disruptive features to their own software and App Store, things that have upset everyone from Facebook to mobile game developers and, yes, even the lowly email marketer.
We can all stand on the sidelines and scoff at Google’s potentially alarming use of user data, but there’s not a single company with any sizable advertising budget that hasn’t taken advantage of that data. It would be stupid not to, just as it would be stupid to keep advertising budget off of Facebook just because you find it alarming how quickly fake news has been proven to spread across its platform. You don’t have to like these companies to use their services, and the simple fact of the matter is that Google and Facebook are where people are. You might hate the smell of Times Square, but you can’t deny that the ads you put up there are seen.
It doesn’t even matter if Apple really means it in their fight for privacy. Yes, it’s won them some points with fans and doesn’t affect their bottom line all that much, and sure, it’s inspired unsolicited thinkpieces like this, but the more exciting part of all of it to me is that it’s Apple doing it. They’re kind of big.
When you’re Apple, the most valuable company in the world, and you put tools in place to hide an email address from a sign-up form or force developers to tell their users how much of their data is being actively used and for what, you change things.
Some of those things that aren’t even directly a result of Apple’s changes are people wondering if they really should give up all this personal data in the first place. It’s not uncommon for people to loudly and publicly quit Facebook, and pretty soon it will be the world’s first social platform of exclusively old people, grandparents who only initially joined to get pics of their grandkids but stayed for the racist memes.
When we all question how much we should share and how, it means marketers can’t be lazy. We can’t target people based on “the algorithm” and let the ad do its work simply by virtue of being at the right place at the right time. The internet presents a plethora of incredible ways to target people, but crafting the right message should still be the core of great marketing. If marketers have to work a little harder now to coax someone to hand over the key to their internet attention (their email address), then so be it.
Hopefully in the future we can find some middle ground in the tug of war between anonymity and a completely customized (and intrusive) experience. I don’t find it annoying to have to tell a service a little bit about myself to get it to do what I want, and in fact find it pretty creepy when it just parses all of my info out of thin air. Having the average consumer question the motivations of their online services will surely only lead to a more user-friendly internet, although giving up the conveniences afforded by the algorithm will be a steep hill to climb.