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6 February 2024

Database Business: It Really Is All About You

This Time it’s Personal. It Really is All About You
The future of advertising, really the future of all business, social interaction, our quality of life and learning is about to be governed by algorithms. Rubbish I hear you say, we are in control of our lives, decisions, learning and future. Well, not for long unless we look very carefully at how we structure the internet and our collection of personal data over the next few years and tailor the code, that will soon run much of it, with an eye to ethics and quality of life over personal gain.
The world is about to get personalised and it will be all about you.
If you are in advertising, technology or internet industries that you probably already know that much of the information we see when we search on Google, Yahoo, Bing or any other search engine is personally tailored to us. Personalised search is here and is now expanding to everything. Everyone does not get the same search results when they look for a brand, news or information.
The searches that come up are filtered by multiple factors. What you have searched before, what you write in your emails (if you use Googlemail, they search it), what sites you have look ed at before, your demographics, what your friends like on social sites, what you have bought before and an ever growing amount of information that is stored to identify you in every possible way.
Two of the biggest database companies are Acxiom and BlueKai. Acxiom (built over 5 acres in Arkansas) claim to have 1500 pieces of data on 96% of Americans, from their credit rating, to their buying preferences and medical notes. This is the company the US government went to after 9/11 and they had more information on the terrorists than the secret services, from their previous addresses to their spending habits.
Companies like Kayak don’t  just make a fee off the travel you buy, they sell the information of your travel purchase to data companies, who then sell that to the highest bidder. The company that bought that information can now target you with ads for travel everywhere you look on the internet. Companies like Loopt and Foursquare tell advertisers where you are from your mobile phone, so ads can be targeted at you everywhere, not just from your computer. It is the big shopping sites like Amazon and Net-a-Porter who buy this information and use it to profitable effect. TargusInfo and the Rubicon Project both claim databases in the billions, with a vast array of information on you, much of it old or out of date, but these are getting more sophisticated and the processes applied to them much more incisive.
It is well known that 98% of people leave a shopping site without buying. So now when you have looked at say a Nikon camera on a site, after you leave the shop you see ads for Nikon cameras on every other site you visit. This is Retargeting. You have shown an interest and the ad is there to push that interest into a sale. Retargeting is used because it works. You can be subtly persuaded into making that purchase by automated software.
This collection of information is not bad per se, much of it will be for your convenience. When you walk into a store for the first time, the sales staff will know what your clothes size is, what you have bought before, how you would like to be addressed and can personalise your experience. Your life will become simpler and easier on a day to day level, but much of the control will also have been passed to large conglomerates who may not put your best interests at the heart of their sales strategy.
The information collected about you is being pulled from every source, it collates your Facebook information, Twitter, Instagram, blogs, emails, buying habits, spending habits, credit rating, dating habits, medical records, web browsing (yes everything you have looked at, the government does track those that look up bomb making frequently) and where you have been. Your mobile phone sends out Geolocation information about everywhere you go to many companies (around 20 currently on a default new iphone) and many apps record where you take a photograph or video.
This affects us in many ways that are not immediately apparent. Previously news was curated by “experts” who chose what was relevant, important or entertaining. Many news companies still use editors to pick the best news that will inform, but this is fast dying and unprofitable. News sites now follow the criteria of most read. What is most read will get pushed out more and what is not read is lost. There are companies out there that literally have the most read articles up on a screen and the journalists writing the least read are shown the door. In simple terms it means that we will see a lot more articles about David Beckham launching a new perfume than political news or orphans in India. Advertising money follows the most hits and this means that real news that might be important for us will gradually get pushed further down the page. The entire internet could become tabloid fodder as it is simply easier after a hard days work to zone out than to keep up with world events.
This is no doom and gloom scenario, but it is new, never in the history of our planet have we been able to collate information in this way so it is very important that we have a say on how it is done. Any totalitarian government would give their high teeth to be able to monitor and follow everyone automatically and control what they see and where they see it using easily automated programs. China no longer worries about dissidents as it effectively controls the majority of the news disseminated and more effectively encourages others to control both what they put out and what they read. This means that you are constantly partaking of information that supports the prevailing government opinion.
The management of this information and the laws affecting its freedom are vital. How we interact with the world and the information we absorb is based on ever changing criteria and often chaotic. We need to be able to access information from all over the net without search engines effectively telling us what we or they went us to hear. It is like the McDonalds of the information world. Here it is, easy, packaged, unchanging, just like you had your mush before. Or like the Daily Mail, feed people the same product information and pander to prejudice, most of it PR lead. Because it sells and pays their wages.
The internet is like a vast cultural mind, it needs to stay free and constantly evolving, providing us with information that is not curated by brands or conglomerates, but an open and free source of information about everything in our world. Not just what the algorithms of search engines think we want. If you rarely read about world affairs or politics, soon these will simply cease to come up in your search, whatever your search term. Algorithms following your database profile will be editing and curating what you see.
Creativity and deeper understanding come from the serendipitous collision of ideas, cultures, tales and history. We need to be in charge of the curating process and that means we need to be in control of the data that companies keep on us. The internet is without doubt the greatest knowledge resource the world has ever seen, we need to be very careful how we look after it. It is really only in its infancy now and will need careful nurturing as it grows. One day it will be looking after us and we are responsible for its evolution.
Further reading:
The Filter Bubble: Eli Pariser
Here Comes Everybody: Clay Shirky
An Optimists Tour of the Future: Mark Stevenson.

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