These days everyone is complaining that the Internet knows them better than their own parents. Every website we visit kindly informs us that they are storing cookies on our computer whether we like it or not and we have to accept it, or just leave. For our generation, this main point has always been true: we have always been more open online than we could ever be with our parents. And for the longest time this was not an issue. So why did we suddenly become so self-conscious? And yes, I get all the hype about security breaches, stolen private information and the hackers who know your credit card number. But let’s be honest: how many of you have actually been the victims of online identity theft? How many friends and family members you have who have experienced it?
I personally don’t know anyone like that. I attribute it mostly to three reasons:
1) The people I know are fairly tech savvy and careful.
2) Those who aren’t hardly use the Internet at all and are afraid to experiment.
3) None of them are really rich, famous or otherwise important.
I am not trying to undermine the importance of online safety here. On the contrary, I hope all of you know fairly well where and why you have provided personal information. I suppose all of you, like me, have online personalities that are at least factually different than the real you. But there are things we can’t hide. With every search we conduct, every link we click, every article we scroll down to read, the Internet learns a bit more about us. And, let me tell you, ever since I started noticing, I’ve been enjoying some pretty cool advantages. Here are a couple of them:
1) It actually shows you relevant ads
I have always been very advertisement-conscious. I stopped watching TV mainly because of all the commercial breaks. Then I discovered pop-up blockers, then ad blockers. These days the only ads I see are those in social media and in Google search results. My deep belief is that ads should be avoided at all costs (surely some of you agree). Imagine my surprise when recently I was shown an ad for a language course that I actually considered going to! And this has been happening more and more. Admittedly, these ads get repetitive really fast – as soon as I have looked for something on Amazon and decided against it, I will see it advertised on Facebook for a whole week. So no, Facebook still doesn’t get it that it can’t just bully me into buying something I don’t need. Still, it now at least shows me things I am actually interested in! Call me gullible, but I consider it a step in the right direction for online marketing (I actually found one of the forensic science courses I talk about here thanks to Google AdWords).
2) Your search engine reads your mind
Do you get the feeling you’ve gotten exceptionally good at ‘googling’ recently? So do I. Perhaps it’s not us that’s gotten better. I am fairly certain that Google uses all the information it stores from our past searches to make better informed decisions not only on the kinds of ads to show us, but on the general search results to display as well. After recently dedicating a whole post on tips for more productive searching, I really cannot complain about this improvement. It makes my life easier and certainly saves me some time trying to come up with the perfect keywords.
3) What’s the worst that could happen?
Even if we assume (ok, yes, it’s obvious!) that search engines and social media websites gather and sell our data to third parties, who are those buyers most likely to be? I’d bet they are not Russian hackers. Most probably it’s the Marketing teams of large corporations who would like to make us their customers. And there’s one thing a marketer likes – it likes their customers alive and well-off. To me that sounds like a valid reason not to steal your credit card numbers.
4) It makes me more considerate, more tolerant and more responsible.
A couple of years ago we all used to believe that, when we were online, we were invincible. No-one could find us and make us regret the nasty things we said. This is no longer the case. More and more we hear about people being tracked down and imprisoned (or worse, beaten) because of their online activities. And while the world is hardly a fair place, there seems to be one pretty good strategy for staying out of trouble: don’t piss people off. I myself see this as a chance to stop abusing my freedom of speech and focus instead on making the Internet a more tolerant place.
5) Facebook helps you learn from your friends
Some of the recent improvements in Facebook guarantee that you see your closest friends’ activity on your wall more often than that of other people. There is certainly some solid logic behind that. It is also a chance for you to filter out all the unnecessary chit-chat that takes place out there. However, there is more to their algorithm than direct interaction. I recently noticed that an acquaintance of mine was posting some rather useful articles on her Facebook which I started to like. Not long after, I saw almost every article she posted (and none of her selfies), without ever actually having exchanged as much as a word. Facebook clearly ‘sensed’ that I was interested in her content, not her personality and gave it to me.
Examples like that make me optimistic for the future of online advertising. Maybe we will get to keep our credit cards after all?