Big Data is Watching You

Anne shares her experience in a Facebook group of like-minded individuals. She feels violated and needs to express herself, and it shows; her writing is angry and resentful. Hundreds of users leave comments of empathy and share similar experiences. The hope is that together they may figure out what’s been happening to them, but thus far no one has gotten the closure they deserve. “This is disgusting,” Anne says.

She was in bed with the lights off, and she thought she was alone. She opens Spotify like she does every night, to fall asleep to some instrumentals. Songs with lyrics tend to keep her awake. It seemed like a very normal night for her. She says she never would have guessed that someone was waiting, listening, processing and analyzing her behavior. The songs began to muddle together, and no longer paying any attention, she drifted off to sleep…

Simultaneously, across the world, amazing things begin to happen. An intelligent electrodynamic web of information is reacting in real-time, sending information through wires and radio waves, to space and back, making decisions and behaving accordingly. Among this action is her app data, being parsed and separated into metadata; ‘where’s and ‘when’s and the like. And then the magic begins.

Anne’s data undergoes a miraculous metamorphosis. Spotify’s algorithms understand that she listens to non-lyrical music at approximately the same time every night. It compares this against data from hundreds of thousands of similar users and assumes that she is falling asleep to this music. It excludes her from concert-ticket marketing, but the data is passed along to Amazon, who pitches her sleep aid devices like white noise generators and eye covers. Furthermore, due to her previous online shopping experiences, Amazon understands that she is likely to make these purchases on weekends after payday, and in amounts of less than $50, but she also pays for two-day shipping more frequently than typical customers, so the algorithms will select products that align more with “impulse-buy” type shoppers. Facebook’s algorithms scour the profiles every user that has “liked” Anne’s bands’ Facebook pages to find common purchases amongst them. For women amongst Anne’s age range, in Anne’s region, with similar incomes to Anne, and with similar page likes and “interests,” the highest-click products to present in advertisements are cases and screen protectors for her phone- which Facebook already knows is a brand-new iPhone X. Meanwhile Anne maintains that her phone has been hacked by advertisers, and her personal information stolen.

Back in the group, I want to speak up, to tell Anne that her microphone isn’t eavesdropping on her, but I’m distracted by a grand idea: Imagine being one of the engineers who contributed to these algorithms. Imagine having a predictive formula so advanced that people actually believe they’re being spied on! What a pat on the back that would be!

There’s some bad news for users like Anne. Data-driven marketing is here to stay. I’m reminded of the typical sci-fi movie scenes where people are perpetually wading through holographic advertisements that address them by name. I’m sure this is the intrusive future that those users might imagine for us, but it couldn’t be further from the truth. As technology evolves, the user experience becomes easier and more intuitive. Even saving data to the cloud may seem dubious and sinister to someone who’s never done it before, but typical users of technology unanimously agree that it is incredibly useful.

So what should we expect to see in the marketing world? To put it frankly, shopping will be easier, and advertisements will be more useful. It’s important to keep in mind that these big companies- Facebook, Amazon, Google, do not want to annoy their users or drive them away. Their goal is ultimately to provide a better, more streamlined user experience, and they are using data analytics and business intelligence to accomplish this.

Or maybe I’m completely wrong. We’ve all seen Terminator. Now imagine it but with clickbait instead of killer robots. Yikes!