Op-ed by Contributor Philip Gordon
Those who are abreast of the latest in technosocial fervour (which seems to be everyone these days) might have heard of Ello, a new social media site which has recently become available in its beta stage by way of invite only. Ello describes itself as “a simple, beautiful, and ad-free social network created by a small group of artists and designers.” The platform boasts a degree of technological purity that has gotten it a lot of press, asserting that the owners “don’t sell ads” and “[won’t] sell data about [its users] to third parties.” There’s a hint of grassroots counterculturism in the site’s manifesto: in a world where it has become commonplace for sites like Google and Facebook to cater their ad-content to users based on information gathered about them, Ello is taking an approach that many people are calling “more ethical.” Ello’s only proposed method of revenue generation is to offer special features to its users for a cost, thus aiming to keep the network ad-free while existing as more than a pure labour of love for its creators.
Here’s why that’s stupid: First, there has been a lot of hubbub over the last few years about the nature of online data collection, who mines your data, what they do with it, and what ramifications that might have on internet privacy going forward. In a recent class discussion that somehow ran off the rails, I listened to people describe how Facebook and Google ads were customized based on recent browsing habits. Everyone who has experienced this phenomenon has probably had a “woah, that’s creepy” moment, but beyond our initial response, is there really anything bad about this practice?
Data collection, more than anything, turns the internet into something that’s customized for your benefit. Every time you type the first letter of a website into your search bar, hit enter, and wind up exactly where you want, that’s data mining at work. Every time your Google results give you local businesses before anything else, that’s data mining at work. Every time you get an email from your local grocery store with coupons on products you were going to buy anyway, that’s data mining at work. Every time your Facebook ads show you something you might actually be interested in (okay, that’s rare, but still), that’s data mining at work. Not drinking too deeply from the corporate Kool-Aid, this particular aspect of internet data collection, while initially off-putting, is positive.
data collection, more than anything, turns the internet into something that’s customized for your benefit.
Where the ethics of the subject get a bit muddy are when companies sell your data—mostly to advertisers and other places looking for aggregate information about potential consumer bases. For the most part, this exchange is invisible, happening entirely behind the scenes, but some people take offense to it (hence the birth of Ello, and more than a few other sites and applications). There seems to be an innate urge in some people to resist the commoditization of something they feel is personal—they don’t want their buying and browsing habits shared with anyone. They want “privacy.”
The problem with this line of thinking is that it doesn’t lead anywhere deductively sound. Say, in some explication of the concept of “privacy,” you claim your browsing data is something that belongs solely to you. Fine—all well and good—but the sharing of that data is what subsidizes the platforms and networks you love to use. If you watch a cable program, is the cable company doing something wrong by collecting that viewing data and passing it along to the network so they can tell what type of shows are popular? If you buy a new CD or book, does passing that sales data along constitute some infringement of your rights? Some people might concede this, and argue that it’s having an individual buying/browsing profile that they object to—but for what reason? Were you going to do anything with that data? Do you have a problem with Facebook knowing that you like hip-hop music or with Google knowing about the Doctor Who gifs you searched for?
While I’ll concede there’s a weak-footed argument to be made on the subject of less scrupulous media consumption (as in, maybe there’s a validity to wanting to keep your porn preferences private), the problem is the internet doesn’t work that way—it’s not the cash-only-no-paper-trail world that our grandparents lived in. In the digital age, information is a commodity, and giving Google or Facebook a few tidbits about your last Amazon purchase is a more than fair exchange for using their amazing, free services.
Now, some people might argue, “If there’s an alternative service that doesn’t take my data, aren’t I entitled to make the switch?” Of course you are. But the point is you aren’t gaining anything tangible by doing so—you never actively saw that data in use, and probably barely even noticed the endemic advertising or search results that came from it. Facebook still doesn’t know how your room is decorated, Google doesn’t know what you dream about at night, and no spooky government satellites are zooming in on a map of your house to judge the colour of the outfit you wore to work yesterday. All that has happened is an inferior, pointlessly idealistic service has popped up and begun to appeal to people’s luddite desire to keep themselves locked in an inaccessible box of privacy, for no reason other than ads and data mining are “just wrong.”
giving google or facebook a few tidbits about your last amazon purchase is a more than fair exchange
There are instances where no advertising makes sense—like Wikipedia, which wants to avoid their content being dictated or influenced by their finances in any way. Some magazines and special interest websites refuse certain types of advertising to avoid conflicts of interest. But there is little reason to buy into the “pure privacy” schtick that Ello is playing, unless you’re the type to be carried away by avalanches of hype and scribble frantic diary entries about spy transmitters in your teeth. Heaven forbid we focus our attention on actual privacy violations when we can be sanctimonious about social networking.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go enjoy a fully functional site I’ve been using for years that won’t try to sell me the ability to message my friends for $5 down the line.