Liz Gannes

Recent Posts by Liz Gannes

Maybe “Being the Product” Isn’t So Bad: Why Data Harvesting Doesn’t Have to Be a Nightmare

The often-cited expression “When something online is free, you’re not the customer, you’re the product” is compelling and smart and seems to sum up the problem of living in an advertising-supported online world.

Theme_From_Cheers_(Where_Everybody_Knows_Your_Name)But it also stops too short. People trot out this line to advocate disengaging from a world of personalization and privacy scandals.

The thing is, you can’t. In this day and age, avoiding security cameras and credit-card tracking and traffic pattern analysis and mobile location data would require a massive bulletproof signal-blocking hermit-crab shell.

What you can do is actually get value from being tracked — while holding companies to a high standard of responsibility, of course.

We give up massive amounts of personal data on a daily basis. In my opinion, it’s darn well time for these services to give back to us by making good use of the data to give us better experiences.

I wrote a post recently about preferring to use some Google apps on my iPhone rather than Apple’s defaults. I was braced for pissy comments; it’s the nature of the beast.

What made people most angry was my support for Google services — because they are made by an ad-supported company, meaning that people who choose to use them are idiots who are handing over the keys to their personal data.

One commenter had a smart answer to those critics:

Honestly, who cares if you’re the product? The first time that Google Now showed me (without me asking) that traffic was bad and therefore I should leave earlier to reach my dinner date on time, I realized an important lesson that thousands of others are learning every day — it isn’t about how much data you give, but what VALUE you derive from giving that data.

Of course, someone else replied with a George Orwell namecheck to say, “That just sounds like an unbelievably naive viewpoint to me.”

A New York Times story this week described a massive Disney theme park initiative to help users have a more streamlined and personal experience when they wear “MagicBands” on their wrists that are loaded with personal preferences and payment information.

MagicBands can also be encoded with all sorts of personal details, allowing for more personalized interaction with Disney employees. Before, the employee playing Cinderella could say hello only in a general way. Now — if parents opt in — hidden sensors will read MagicBand data, providing information needed for a personalized greeting: “Hi, Angie,” the character might say without prompting. “I understand it’s your birthday.”

Totally creepy, right? But how delighted would your kid be? Today’s creepy is tomorrow’s normal. The kid who thinks Cinderella is magical grows up in a world where personalization is expected. And that’s not all bad.

If you want to be anonymous, you get a logged-out version of the world, with no one-click shopping or personalized recommendations.

Or you can pay for a service (though the companies you pay don’t necessarily treat you better). Or you can use an alternative that is all about caretaking online privacy (good luck finding your friends on there), or one that promises to delete your activity immediately (heaven help us if Snapchat has a security breach).

There is absolutely a place for anonymity. I don’t want my every move and bad-hair day to be on my permanent record, and I’m thankful that I don’t have bigger secrets I’m trying to hide. I don’t check in on Foursquare at my house. I talk to sensitive sources on the phone or in person, rather than on their official email accounts.

But if we log in, it’s about time these companies start paying us for our data by actually being smart about how they use it. It actually can be rather delightful to go to a bar where everybody knows your name and your drink order. And we can continue to be responsible consumers by holding companies accountable for taking care of our privacy.

Here are some ways that personalization can be good:

  • Syncing experiences across multiple contexts so we can pick up where we dropped off. (Examples: Basically any cloud service like Dropbox; logged-in browsers like Google Chrome and Firefox Sync on Android.)
  • Anticipating our preferences so we don’t have to enter them again (especially important on mobile).
  • Answering questions we didn’t ask by aggregating other people’s experiences and matching them to ours (Amazon, modern Web search).
  • Learning from our own past interactions to show us what we’re most likely to be interested in (Gravity, Facebook newsfeed).
  • Analyzing our habits so we can know more about ourselves and learn (Nike FuelBand or any quantified-self anything, Gmail Meter).
  • Targeting advertising so it’s not sucky and irrelevant (Enliken is trying to help users trade data to get through paywalls).

I ran some of these thoughts by the persuasive author Seth Godin as I was working on this piece, and he had a really nice way of wrapping it all together.

As Godin put it, it’s increasingly hard to function in our society without being on the grid. So let’s support use of data as a feature, not a tax.


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