Tracking vs. Sharing

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mirror_smallADOTAS – Almost six months ago, The Wall Street Journal published an article titled, “The Web’s New Gold Mine: Your Secrets.” They prefaced the piece by saying, “A Journal investigation finds that one of the fastest-growing businesses on the Internet is the business of spying on consumers. First in a series.”

And, like any piece of investigative journalism, it begins with a personal story, i.e., “Hidden inside Ashley Hayes-Beaty’s computer, a tiny file helps gather personal details about her, all to be put up for sale for a tenth of a penny. The file consists of a single code — 4c812db292272995e5416a323e79bd37— that secretly identifies her as a 26-year-old female in Nashville, Tenn.”

In this, the first piece, Lotame, founded by an ex-Advertising.com senior executive takes some of the punches for what has become the focus of display advertising — audience targeting.

The Division

The Wall Street Journal series does what any series, looking to both stir up controversy and increase a sense of righteousness, would do. It pits a business trend still in its infancy but rich with interest and dollars against unknowing customers sure to find the practice disturbing.

From the business perspective, audience targeting has done wonders to display advertising. It has revolutionized the way display ads are bought and sold. From the user perspective, it has given the “vocal minority” as Fred Wilson calls them, a forum to express their vociferous discontent. He writes, “I’ve always felt that the majority of web users understand that tracking technologies provide value and that they put up with them even though they are slightly creeped out by them.” You wouldn’t be able to tell given the pulp written lately.

Perhaps, it’s wrong to think that a large number of users understand that tracking technologies provide value. These technologies are so complex and ever evolving, though, that it’s all too easy for tracking to seem insidious and thus an easy pray.

To learn that a site has 40 different trackers at play, sounds scary right? And, that’s just a low number. Half, if not greater than half, of our industry doesn’t even understand the latest advances in tracking and targeting. Could you describe the interplay between demand side platforms, exchanges, data marketplaces, and supply side platforms? If we can’t, should we expect users too?

Tracking vs. Privacy

Tracking is not good. Tracking is not bad. How companies use tracking is the cause for debate, not tracking itself. Hardly any would want to send things via FedEx and not be able to stalk their package. The same goes for personalization. It’s generally seen as a plus.

Sites monitor our activity and attempt to customize the experience for us. That can range from simply showing our name when coming to the site, to unique content based on past purchase behavior. Some of the changes blur the lines between tracking and database driven customization. If we expressly log-in to a site to see custom recommendations, the dynamic content comes as a result of tracking, but it doesn’t have associated with it any form of invasiveness.

When we read excerpts from the string of articles covering the subject, they read more and more like privacy discussions than advertising technology pieces. One of the most articulate on the subject of privacy, and most interesting given his choice for what one writer calls “radical transparency” is Robert Scoble.

He is one of the most transparent people. He has taken a thougthful and deliberate view towards transparency. His opinion matters because he doesn’t need to be transparent. He isn’t trying to sell a book. He’s not a celebrity looking to use Twitter to project an image. His advocacy is an experiment played out in real life so that others can decide how they would like to live their online life. But, he is what another author called, a member of the privileged class, in that he can still benefit from being public and transparent.

That’s where some of the tension around privacy lies, that despite what Mark Zukerberg or Google think, transparency doesn’t suit everyone. We’ll leave alone the opaqueness of the companies that advocate transparency for now.

Where Does The Social Graph Fit?

Those who saw “The Social Network” will recall one of the earlier scenes where Mark Zuckerberg created a site to compare students’ pictures. To obtain the pictures, he scraped the information from the dorm sites, a tactic that landed him in hot water according to the movie.

The beauty of his next iteration, TheFacebook, was that it didn’t violate any copyrights because the students uploaded their information to be displayed. And, like a snowball, the use of our information has only exploded since the mass popularization of Facebook. Go to almost any news site, while logged in to Facebook (even if you have the site closed), and you will see information from your social graph used in a variety of different ways.

Facebook’s privacy transgressions have only heated up since inception, and this year, the company had so many, it seems as though they have all canceled each other out. During some of the stumbles earlier this year, Scoble said this, “I think Zuckerberg is wrong to rip away something we thought was private and give that over to the world without properly explaining the ‘free beer’ we’re getting in return (or, even, giving us a choice in it).” Adding, “The only control we have is whether we use it or not. I’ve decided to use it…but will not use it to store anything private.”

The problem now is one of human behavior. We love to share. Think of Foursquare, Twitter, or one of the earlier high fliers, Yelp. The amount of personal information they contain is astronomical. They might get in trouble over privacy issues, but they aren’t often associated with spying though. Why? They enable sharing. And, shame on us if they created a service (even through game mechanics) that causes us to over-share.

Tracking vs. Sharing

“The Business of Spying on Internet Users” — that’s the term that the Wall Street Journal latched on to. History sniffing, attempted to detect where people have surfed, obviously bad. What about showing someone an ad for a lower price ticket if they visited a travel site but did not book after performing a query? The travel sites like to do that to users via email. Is it wrong to do it using banners? Only when it’s called tracking.

As we think through the differences between tracking and other issues of privacy in this over-sharing, transparent world, it’s hard not to latch on to the obvious — control.

Danah Boyd says something interesting in regard to Facebook; it applies to the issues and tension around advertising, writing that peoples mental models don’t match-up to reality. That is how I feel about the ad landscape today. People often feel safer on social sites, but they have a false sense of what is and isn’t shared.

Contrast that to the ad world, where people (at least the vocal minority) seem to have attributed powers to advertising technologies that just don’t exist, especially since they rely on cookies which can be cleared. With Facebook these “abstractions,” as Danah calls them, lead to more sharing. In the ad world, the abstractions lead to assigning greater tracking specificity than actually exist.

Control is all about giving people the sense that they have choice, even if the reality of it is far less. Facebook has moved there. We feel more empowered then ever, but our behavior there, and elsewhere, hasn’t radically changed. Control is definitely in the cards for the solution, but what we continue to see is the chasm between tracking and sharing.

Just as users need more education on sharing, they need equal education on tracking. It isn’t the fault of tracking that sharing sounds so much better or that sharing is ultimately more dangerous. No one has been truly harmed by “tracking.” It’s tracking’s game to lose.

Sharing is here to stay. Want to make money? Get people to share vast amounts of data and create a marketplace. Want to freak people out? Create a marketplace of data independent of the site they share. The difference is perception, and in addition to control, it’s that perception which must be changed. If we don’t change them, the path of least resistance is going to be regulation and restriction.

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