Recently there has been a lot of discussion in Tech and investment circles over the use of personal data. The more sinister side of the big data debate revolves around the reasons why entrepreneurs and developers are building so many charming, sexy and colourful new lifestyle apps. Is it because these mini-algorithms help us to solve our first world problems, making our lives more efficient and productive, and allowing us more time to focus on what’s really important, or are these really flimsy and transient devices whose real purpose is to rob us of our personal data and sell it on to marketers and advertisers. In short, has our friend the lifestyle app suddenly gone all Trojan horse on us?
How much information we are prepared to give away and to how many people is a matter of personal opinion. Some will feel that the more detail others have concerning our daily routine the better; it puts them uppermost in developers minds, meaning new technologies will be more tailored to their needs and desires. “This is what I do all day, help me do it better”, they say. Others are more wedded to the cult of the individual. “I do things my way and if I want somebody else to know what I am up to I will tell them.” There’s no right or wrong answer, but it is likely that neither side wants to be tricked into giving their, or their partner’s, or their children’s personal information away.
A typical example: “our amazing new app will measure your sleep patterns, and tell you an old wives tale about the importance of drinking a pint of water before you go to bed, but it will also tell all of our affiliate marketing friends what time you get up in the morning, so they can send you push notifications with suggestions about what you might like for breakfast.” “Our new social sharing app knows how much you are prepared to spend on fashion, and we’ll tell the high street so they can adjust their prices accordingly.” Marketers, if the information you want is so inconsequential, how come you can’t ask for it outright? Why wrap it up in a feeble, poorly performing app that does exactly the opposite of what it says on the tin?
Census information is nothing new, and I am by no means arguing that we should return to Domesday style methods of data-gathering, but look, don’t promise to make my life better if data is all you are after. I deserve better, and better is not what you are giving me.
Like most of the rest of the world I have a Facebook account, and by and large it gives me more pleasure than pain, because it lets me know what the friends I don’t see every day are up to, and that is a good thing. But is the price I pay exorbitant, and who exactly am I doing a deal with here? Somebody, or something, with more money and resources at their disposal than all my friends put together, wants me to behave in a certain way, buy a certain product, see a certain message. So are they winning, are they satisfied, is my daily routine to their liking? The truth is they don’t know any more than I do.
Facebook (or insert your preferred social media partner here) is the ultimate 3rd party platform, playing the ultimate Machiavellian trick. “Advertisers, see all these people, tell them whatever you like and they will do your bidding!” “People, here are some messages, if you don’t like them, ignore them?”. So who are we really listening to, and who are we really trusting with our lives? “Don’t shoot, we’re just the messenger!” Cute.
But may I repeat 2 observations made to me by colleagues this week: one, social media platforms are on the whole terrible advertisers, and agencies are cottoning on to the fact that their marketing spend is not having the effect they believed it would. And two, when was the last time you heard an advert while you were using the telephone?
Because, you see, the go-between, it is worth remembering, has a fairly short natural life. Eventually the 2 sides it keeps apart will either decide they don’t need to communicate with each other, or cut the middle man out and sit down at the negotiating table. As W.B Yeats put it, “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold”. He adds, “mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”, but before we all lose our heads let’s remember the wise words of Bill Hicks: “Hey, don’t worry, don’t be afraid, ever, because this is just a ride.” Bill could be describing social media: “it has thrills and chills and it’s very brightly coloured and it’s very loud and it’s fun”, but it ain’t real. And it’s not more than the sum of its parts.
In other words, geography and the world-wide-web are what keeps social media sites going, not marketing, nor branding. We join Facebook because we cannot travel 24 hours to chat to our Australian friends whenever we feel like it. Now that doesn’t mean good marketers can’t make good use of a platform that people are using to connect with one another. They can, they do, and they will continue to do so, but they also realise that if they get it wrong, they, and their clients, will be hit where it hurts them the most, in the pocket. So perhaps we should appeal to these people: find a way to stop people exploiting your research and technology to make mass produced, crappy, smoke and mirrors, information stealing apps which clog up our phones and tablets and make us wonder whether being connected is even remotely worthwhile! (Remotely, geddit!)
And yet? There is one other factor at play here, one more facet of our personalities that is beyond our, or perhaps anybody’s control. That indefinable quality that courses through the veins of the whole of human history, corrupting, influencing, and creating mayhem. Harry Lime sums it up best in the Graeme Greene scripted film the third man:
“Don’t be so gloomy. After all it’s not that awful. Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”
Mischief. Our Achilles heel. Tick tock. So long, Holly.