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a feminist technology blog

Category: marketing

New talk: Big Data, Data-Mining, and the Social Web

Today I gave a talk at the Power, Privacy & the Internet event hosted by the New York Review of Books. I was on a heavy-hitting panel with the wonderful James Bamford, who has been writing books taking the NSA to task since I was playing with Barbies– and as a result, knows more about where the NSA came from and where it is going than anyone else I’ve ever met. Rounding out the panel was Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, who has been pressuring the Obama administration to reform the NSA and has met personally with the three out of five members of Obama’s new NSA review board. Phew.

My talk, in contrast, was about the corporate collecting of personal data. I had just seen a fantastic presentation at AOIR by Dave Parry on the Obama campaign’s use of data-mining techniques, and was well-prepared as a result (thanks Dave!).

Here’s the first paragraph of the talk:

While recent revelations regarding the NSA’s role in the collection and mining of the personal information and digital activities of millions of people across the world have garnered immense media attention and public outcry, there are equally troubling and equally opaque systems run by advertising, marketing and data-mining firms which have not attracted as much attention. Using techniques ranging from supermarket loyalty cards to targeted Facebook advertising, private companies systematically collect very personal information, from who you are, to what you do, to what you buy. Data about your online and offline behavior is combined, analyzed, and sold to marketers, corporations, governments, and even criminals. The scope of this collection, aggregation, and brokering of information is similar to, if not larger than, that of the NSA, yet it is almost entirely unregulated and many of the activities of data-mining and digital marketing firms creep under the radar.

You can download a PDF of the entire talk here. Thanks much to #aoircamp for the time and space in which to write it up.

status as skill possession


Scotty Demonstrates Cultural Competency

Trendwatching identified “Status Skills” as a September 2006 trend. Basically, this means status as knowing how to do things, but specifically cool, expensive, time-consuming things, like making your own wine, being a super-excellent digital photographer, or just making cool stuff as demonstrated by MAKE magazine or GetCrafty.com. Trendwatching of course is trying to show marketers, brands, etc. how they can curry favor with consumers by helping them to attain competency in high-status areas.

Of course, demonstrating competency is and has always been a status symbol. High-status activities, for example, are often ones in which instruction is necessary. Think about sushi, which is a fairly expensive food that can only be eaten outside of the home (unless you are madly skilled and have lots of money) and requires knowledge to consume: knowing what to order, how to eat it, and having a “sophisticated” palette that doesn’t balk at raw animal proteins. It is precisely the knowledge required to “appreciate” sushi that makes it a high-status food. This is the same principle behind byzantine etiquette rituals or “high-maintainence” grooming techniques: it must be taught, and yet it is almost never taught outright, but requires observation and a friendly Pygmalion instructor (your best friend in 10th grade teaching you how to pluck your eyebrows, for example).

And the more knowledge you have about something, the higher status you can place on it. For example, running used to require basically a pair of sneakers, access to the outdoor world, and maybe some shorts. Now, serious runners are obsessive about mileage, footwear, mp3 players worn on the arm, stretches, marathon training, and as a result (or perhaps as a cause) an entire set of industries has grown up around running as an activity. When I first went to a gym in my early 20s (let’s just stay I’m not the athletic type and leave it at that), I had no idea how to use an elliptical and was incredibly intimidated by the spatial configuration of the gym, where everything you do is in public and there are almost no instructions whatsoever. Competence is assumed. One of the reasons I still avoid yoga is because I never learned how to do it, and I am too chicken to fail in front of a bunch of skinny, in-shape MILFY Bay Area or Manhattan chicks.

However, every type of cultural competency requires learning, just some more than others. If you had never, ever been to a McDonald’s before, you would probably not know how to order. But McDonald’s is constructed so that the entire space of the restaurant encourages people to behave in a certain way, the way that McDonald’s wants them to.

In most McDonalds, there are several registers, and people line up in front of each of them [Side note: have you ever been in a drugstore like Walgreens, CVS, or Bartells where people naturally form a single line that feeds into multiple cashiers? 90% of the time they have a home-made sign up saying something to the effect of “form a line at each register.” The problem is that usually there’s only space for one line rather than many; the space doesn’t lend itself naturally to multiple lines. And when people are constantly doing the “wrong” thing, a company should wise up and figure out how to re-architect or re-organize the space (or software) so that the user does whatever the “right” thing is; or they should re-think their idea of what’s “right”]. There are lots of garbage bins on the way out so people take their trays to the trash before they leave. There are uncomfortable seats so people don’t linger and the restaurant doesn’t get crowded with stragglers. And there is a big, well-lit menu so people can figure out what they want to eat before they get up to the register. We all know how frustrating it is when people wait until they get to the register to decide.

High-status locations usually do not provide as many cues to the user as to how to consume (use, eat, drive, etc.) them. The lack of usability could be explained as partly due to the fact that knowing how to use them is where their status resides.

Alternately, there can be multiple levels of “using” something: being a basic newbie user vs. a power/expert user. Many of my students, for example, don’t know that Wikipedia is editable, thus missing what most people would think of as “the point” of Wikipedia (but going a long way to explain why they see it as a totally legitimate reference source). So status can reside in obtaining the upper, “power-user” competencies of an application, place, hobby, and so forth. And this again varies. I am a hardcore Word power user, but because Word is so dorky, that doesn’t impress pretty much anyone, ever. However, if I was a really super awesome Photoshopper, I could demonstrate competency in a way that people would probably respond to positively.

Trendwatching also points out that this ties into Web 2.0 intimately:

Now, consumers can acquire as many skills as they want, but equally important is the showing-off aspect of what they’ve learned and created. Don’t forget: without ‘the others’ seeing, tasting, hearing or smelling your skills, without the inevitable story-telling, there shall not be any status coming thy way!

Some of this showing off is best done in the company of family and friends, garnering recognition from those who are closest and who matter most. But other creations are just dying to be flaunted to strangers, to the entire world, to give their creators a status fix that’s more in tune with today’s obsession with instant celebrity. In that light, the incredible numbers behind Wikipedia, blogging software, Lulu.com, PureVolume, YouTube and Flickr are not at all surprising. We’re now all skilled encyclopedia editors, writers, musicians, directors, photographers, and we want to share the fruits of our labour with a responsive audience.

Lesson learned: don’t just figure out how you can help your customers improve their skills, but also give them an intimate or worldwide outlet to show and tell and brag.

Again this is mostly exaggerated, as only about 10% of any online community is producing any kind of serious content (videos, blogs, or pictures as opposed to viewing, rating or commenting) and of that, most of it is probably garbage; perhaps there is an aspirational nature to this? And of course, just knowing how to participate in a community without actively pissing people off by violating social mores is in itself an extraordinarily valuable skill.

Trendwatching also claims that “status is to be had in many more ways than leading a somewhat dated lifestyle centered on hoarding as many branded, luxury goods as possible”, which I agree with completely, but that doesn’t mean I think luxury goods have diminished one bit (I saw “organic” Rice Krispies at Safeway the other day), just that they’re being “rebranded” to cater to consumer demand for slow food, locally produced, sweatshop-free, etc. goods. Which of course are probably exactly 0% more slow, local, or sweatshop-free than their predecessors.

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studying the culture of marketing

As any regular reader of this blog knows, I’m fascinated by marketing, particularly online marketing. One of the many and endless fields that I affiliate myself with is “surveillance studies”, and my focus within that is on the ethics of marketing practices like behavioral tracking and targeting, astroturf, fake street team and guerilla campaigns, etc. (I may be speaking on this at SXSW this spring. I’ll keep you posted). My interests in participatory culture, fandom, social networks, and Web2.0 all overlap with marketing as well.

Very few academics work on “the culture of marketing”. One of the few who does is Boston College sociologist Juliet Schor, who wrote a brilliant book called Born to Buy about marketing to children. Arlene Davila, a cultural anthropologist, wrote Latinos Inc. about the strategic creation of “Latinos” as an identity closely tied to a lucrative demographic-cum-consumer group.

Of course, in the non-academic realm there are plenty of resources. I tend to find Adbusters a bit polemic and over-the-top, not to mention not always well-researched, but I really love Stay Free, an NYC-based zine about marketing, culture, and advertising.

Now, I’m in an interesting position because I’ve worked in marketing for years, and lots of my friends work in marketing. The academic viewpoint on this tends to be “marketing is evil, capitalism is evil, marketers are evil and they have no self-awareness.” Let’s break this down:

1. Regardless of what you think about American capitalism, it’s not going anywhere any time soon.

2. Likewise marketing.

3. Therefore, doesn’t it make more sense to try to work towards ethical marketing, or at least elimination of the more shady/egregious examples of the field, rather than eliminating it all?

4. And honestly, while there are plenty of rah-rah cheerleader marketroids in the field, there are plenty of people who are thoughtful, highly intelligent and introspective about their field.

Two blogs that come to mind are The Black Fox Blog, which covers marketing and technology. Market My Monkey is a similar blog, but more focused on the entertainment industry.

Why read this type of thing? Well, first, it is impossible to study online anything without paying attention to commercial and consumer-driven uses of the internet. Even if you’re looking at open source, Wikipedia, or “Progressive NetRoots” (yargh), it’s really crucial to look at how for-profit sites interact with other types of sites, how they share techniques or stand in opposition to each other, how they feed off for-profit sites, etc. Second, I hate to say it, but marketing, like pr0n, is becoming an indicator of successful social technology. It often hits weird, emergent behaviors dead-on. Out-there online campaigns might be more edge than early adopter, but they can still be useful to think with. Finally, if you’re interested in media studies at all, you have to look at marketing (or, overall, “the political economy of media”) in order to make sense of the overall media ecosystem (e.g. what gets funded, how does it make money, why is X chosen over Y, how does media consolidation affect things, etc.).

I have a lot of marketing / industry resources in the sidebar for anyone curious.

ClickTale: Where’s the Consent?

TechCrunch blogs about a new tool that lets website proprietors watch what their users do. And I do mean watch. They provide “movies of users’ individual browsing sessions” including all mouse movement, clicks, and keystrokes. They also aggregate data to provide overall statistics.

These types of tools are often used in usability studies to make websites more accessible or information easier to find. However, in usability studies, there is full disclosure and the participants are usually paid.

The interesting point is that this service will be made available to everyone and not only to big corporations greedy in user stats. ClickTale is a hosted service, so no installation is needed on the server-side or client-side and setup takes only a few minutes. Webmasters add a small piece of javascript code to their webpages. The javascript collects browsing data and transmits it to the ClickTale servers for processing. ClickTale creates movies of browsing sessions almost instantaneously and webmasters can log-in securely at anytime to view these movies. This point is important: Indeed the technology is site centric, meaning not based on a panel of users but on the site total active user base.

It’s nice to think about this in terms of usability and bloggers and indie websites, but in reality how is ClickTale going to make money? Through its relationship with enterprise customers. I am sure that the free package is only the tip of the iceberg, and that paid customers get far more advanced user tracking tools. Ouriel at TechCrunch mentions the privacy features: only website owners can view the results, no personal information is tracked, no password tracking.

But there is no consent and no means to inform the user that they are tracked. While a few people voice privacy concerns on the comments to this entry, the responses are:
1. Privacy’s dead, get over it –and
2. That is a niche user preference.

Arik from ClickTale says in the comments:

LOL. You might be surprised but most of the users are not concerned by this like you do. This is a personal preference and we respect that. There is an option to install a cookie that will disable the service for you (more on this in our soon to be released privacy policy), or you can use whatever tools that you are familiar with if you don’t like cookies.

Again, privacy is reduced to a boutique concern of a small number of users. This is unbelievably irresponsible and I have no problem calling ClickTale out on that. There are plenty of ways they could require informed consent from users, but they know that marketers far prefer users not to know about tracking, because users will then opt out. These types of technologies should not be opt-out in the first place, and I am curious how this will fly in the EU where privacy rights are more strict than they are in the United States (which has some of the weakest privacy rights in the world).

BTW, as I’ve written about before, “personal information” does somehow not include IP addresses. But an IP address is a perfectly legitimate personal identifier (just ask the RIAA) and it’s specious to think otherwise.

The argument “privacy is dead anyway” is a straw man. Privacy rights have diminished greatly in the United States because people don’t know that most privacy violations are going on, people don’t know what their rights are, and because the government has not legislated any sort of privacy protections. If these things changed, we could have a greater expectation of privacy. To say “there’s nothing we can do” ignores the fact that we are going to see more technologies like this which are increasingly intrusive and problematic.

My solution would be legislative, since neither marketers nor technology companies seem to be able to follow an internal code of ethics. Similar to anti-spam laws, technologies which track user data should a) notify the user and b) require consent to proceed. I also believe that tracking cookies (like DoubleClick) violate privacy, and this type of requirement would cover those as well.

Now off my high horse. I have to catch up with go fug yourself.

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