Facebook(META) has 2.6 billion monthly active users and makes 69.7 Billion dollars annually, which means that roughly one user is worth 32.03 dollars a year.
If all FB users chipped in about 2.7 dollars a month, Mark could be just as rich without selling all of our data, (or selling it back to just us?) and we could own our privacy.
“If you are not paying for the product, you are the product”
You have probably come across this saying one way or another. This one sentence is so popular because it captures our present moment so well. We use many apps and web services free of charge because their business model relies not on users paying, but on advertisers paying for our attention.
A super quick investigation on the famous “you are the product” line reveals that it's been around before the internet. It was initially intended as a critique of television, and more specifically corporate run mass-media. It is from a 1973 short film titled “TV Delivers People.” You can still watch this 7 minute manifesto on Youtube
It is easy to understand how a diss on TV would fit social media like a glove.; both TV and SM are places people get their news and entertainment side by side, both are often blamed for sensationalising news for ratings/clicks, and ultimately both are run on ad money.
Ad Targeting: Nothing New
Targeting ads is not a digital phenomenon. As long as mass media has existed, advertisement has existed alongside it, and it has always been on the hunt for more customers.
Advertisers are always trying -with the existing technology and their creativity - to put the right product in front of the right potential customers.
Think of the different kinds of TV ads you see during a children’s cartoon hour (detergent and diaper ads alongside lots of toy commercials) and how different they are to an ad break in the middle of a football game.
Advertisers have been doing surveys, focus groups, phone calls, street interviews and whatever else it takes to gain more insight into the lives of consumers. But the one major difference between these methods and what is happening today is that data doesn’t lie, while people do. Sometimes it is not even intentional, but when answering questions we tend to be aspirational rather than realistic.
A great example comes from the Netflix data about how people put documentaries on their watchlist, but when the weekend comes, most of them end up watching averagely-rated comedy films.
Digital Revolutionised Marketing with Big Data
While targeting has always been around, big data truly changed the game. Gaining a lot of information on a lot of people in a way that is definitely more reliable than a question & answer phone survey, allowed advertisers to target customers with much more precision.
In the 1990s, “the cookie” was invented. This was a piece of code that was planted in web browsers to track your activity. This allowed digital ads to be shown to people who may be already interested in them. Many science fiction classics, like the 2002 film Minority Report, predicted a hyper level of personalisation for ads.
Soon after came invisible trackers, data brokers and crazy inventive ways to exploit people’s privacy.
Facebook put together a report about "the newly single" users' behaviour (indicated by changing relationship status to single.) The report found that people tended to go on vacations after break-ups. Making them a prime target group for hotels looking to advertise on FB.
Microtargeting or hyper targeting is a problem for many reasons. It totally disregards your privacy. Most of the time you have no idea that your data is being collected, stored, sold/bought, and used to influence your behaviour. This last part is really important.
Some technology enthusiasts argue that if an ad for a pair of sneakers is being shown to someone who googled the word sneakers, what is wrong with that? Isn't that just getting the product in front of someone interested? Win-win situation, no? Well if you are reading this article I am guessing you are not one of these people, but let’s answer anyway.
There are many psychological phenomena behind how an ad works. The whole field of behavioural economics is dedicated to the intersection of psychology and economics. One of the interesting effects is called the mere exposure effect, so just by showing us something enough times, they might incept the idea of buying it into our heads.
Another method is called nudge theory. This is when at checkout a normal store would put candies, or gum by the cash register so people just grab one and purchase it.
The digital equivalent is when you are on Amazon and the store tells you the people who looked at this product also looked at these other items, or 58 people looked at this jacket today, only 1 left, buy in the next 2 hours for a 5% discount. These are all slight nudges towards that ultimate end result.
The second way digital revolutionised marketing was by making it affordable for small businesses. This was also a result of big data and micro-targeting because if you are able to really pinpoint to that level of “high school educated, divorced, 20-29 year old moms, living in Brooklyn” then you can pay Facebook or some other social media platform 100 dollars to show your ad to 1000 people who fit that group description.
In this way everyone, from individuals selling things on the internet to mega corporations, were now advertising online. Digital real estate was not only for the rich corporations like the billboards or the TV ads.
Big data can manipulate our behaviour.
The core problem with all of this is that big data can be used to manipulate us into buying more things - mostly things we don’t need. We are being psychologically "hacked" into wasting our money on stuff.
It's a sinister plot twist; businesses exploit our vulnerabilities and turn us into cash-cows with cleverly programmed algorithms, similar to how casinos have tried to "hack" our biological reward system to keep us gambling.
Our privacy is being completely disregarded by the free-of-charge services we use.
There is a lack of proper regulation and overhead. Some say these were sacrifices in the name of innovation. However, it is possibly more due to the fact that legislators can't keep up with the new world. And the exponential rate at which it is growing.
So that leaves us to fend for ourselves in the fight for our rights.
Anytime you use a free-of-charge service the question should be what is the business model here?
Almost always the answer will be that it is funded by ads. Then the question becomes how much of our data will be given away to those advertisers in exchange for profit?
Decentralized Web, dVPN, Mysterium: Why Does it Matter?
Even as a paying user, you need to be careful, because companies like Netflix may charge you and not show you ads (ie. sell you data to advertisers) but they are still collecting and using data for their benefit.
Therefore, to increase your privacy, you might decide to use a VPN service. There too you need to be careful because centralized VPN companies (both free and paid ones) can log your data, and either choose to sell it, or lose it to leaks or hacks.
This is why a decentralised VPN (dVPN) is a much better 🍪 solution 🍪. (However, it is not bullet-proof, and should be paired with other tools and habits that protect you online).
Mysterium Network’s flagship product is a dVPN. We work to provide anyone with affordable access so that the internet can be borderless as it should be. The best part is that we are not asking you to trust us.
The technology we created means that it is technically impossible for us to track, store or access your browsing activity while using the Mysterium dVPN. We can't physically store logs, even if we wanted to, due to our decentralised architecture.
This peer-to-peer network lets anyone run a node to share their IP address in exchange for crypto, allowing others to bypass geoblocks and access all kinds of global content.
The best part? You'll never be the product, because you don't pay Mysterium, you pay everyday people around the world who are helping to decentralise the web and make it more open for all :)