The algorithm, cookies, data collection, They Live (1988), privacy policies and those good ol’ t’s ‘n’ c’s! These terms get thrown around a lot in the data wrangling and privacy world. Still, I think we can all agree that, above all, John Carpenter’s classic film “They Live” is the most critical piece of privacy data tracking media of all time. Ok, but seriously what are we giving up? What is the price of riding on the information superhighway in 2021? In this article, I would like to get stuck into demystifying what the robot sees, how it uses that data and how you can train your algorithm to work for you.
“Break the pattern. Take control of your life, Todd. The instant you take control, interesting things will happen. I guarantee it.”
I come up against working with clients in the social space, and those that follow these threads about data privacy is a general unease that comes with the lack of understanding or assumptions about how these systems work. So let’s rip the bandaid off first: Yes, your data is being tracked to varying degrees across the various platforms you engage with, but what does this mean?
Are we merely reduced to a statistic on a sheet to the individual and the robot? Your digital record gathers certain flags that will get raised when you use a free service such as Facebook or Google to target the advertising that pays the bills back at their HQ. These are broad stroke and impersonal profiles stored in larger systems. The other version of this we have seen come up in the news is “cookies” stored locally on your browser. This data lives on your computer & the web server and is used as a kind of checklist so the next time you visit that site, it remembers who you are and how you like your browsing experience.
These chunks of information or “Data packets” like a traditional filing cabinet, if accessed by “malicious” parties, can inform those looking at them about your browsing activity and habits. But this is not the intent.
The result of all of this is that it isn’t usually the case that someone would be looking directly at you and this data gathering is broad stroke information that supplements the platforms they are being used in conjunction. From developing new updates to the platforms you use that make it easier or more engaging to send you more relevant information and ads, this data is collected and used internally to improve your experience and how these platforms can remain free services. That is the ideal.
Advertising in 2020 on Facebook generated just over 84 Billion dollars from advertising, and this isn’t chump change by any stretch of the imagination. Still, if you use the platform like the other 1.84 billion daily active users (on average), this is what is footing the bill for the servers and salaries that hold the platform online. You are benefiting from the ads you are seeing. Now should you have the option to foot that bill yourself? That’s a topic for another time to be sure.
What if I told you that with a little active participation in the training of the machine, you could coach it to suit your needs? That’s right! Are you stuck in the doom scroll? Do you wish your cat videos were up 20% YTD? Are your prank video yields low? Well, buckle up because we are about to train some robots!
When you consider how you interact with your websites and social media, you may think of yourself as relatively passive, but following some pretty simple steps can improve your experience exponentially! These might seem pretty straightforward all in all, but putting it into practice is a different story.
What You See Is What You Get.
So what is your typical social scrolling behaviour? If you are an active participant in the skipping and selecting of videos, your views and view length counts for more than you may realise. Websites like Youtube and Facebook will track how long you stay engaged with something and feed you more of that content if you can. They want you to stay on the site for as long as possible. So if you are trying to break a cycle or if all your recommended content is starting to look the same, maybe it is time to start skipping those pieces of content and watching some more specific stuff. A great example of this is when I try to get back to cooking videos and away from the news, I will actively watch something from my favourite chefs and click through a few recommendations. But what can we do while watching our content to help us?
Interaction Is Worth More.
The humble like button or “reaction”, depending on your platform of choice, may seem unassuming, but it isn’t there for just you and your friends to measure how epic that fail was. This stuff is powerful magic so watch out. To begin, let’s overview youtube as they have a like and a dislike. Google has put much work into being able to catalogue and serve up their content. It can be the difference between you being served that person’s content directly into your recommended videos and your subscriptions. Still, doing nothing or the even more extreme dislike can shadow ban them from your feed forever. This system is a bit more complicated when it comes to the Facebook reaction system. They have purposefully left the system open-ended and have no “negative” reaction. Pairing your reactions to content and how long it keeps you scrolling means that you may have accidentally backed yourself into a doom scroll. If Facebook has you scrolling mad, then they will try and keep you that way. So if you are sick of being stuck in that cycle, the power is yours. Just make sure you are using it for good instead of backing yourself into a negative emotion cycle unless that’s your thing.
Using Ads to Your Advantage.
Last but not least is ads. Now we have all had that crazy moment where we are talking about mattresses or what have you and our ads start tailoring precisely to what we have just discussed. It may feel like voodoo, but the official line from these companies is just that you were probably googling the best deals or looking up the products you were looking for on Amazon, and Facebook linked that data up to feed you targeted ads. But have you ever considered just clicking on ads? Sometimes I like to click on ads coming up that are close or related to the products I am looking for as they appear, which has helped me a few times in the past to find better deals. The general order of operations here is I google shoes, I get ads for shoes and click them, and bada bing bada boom, I am in a cycle of shoe ads for the next 24 hours or so and getting exposed to new brands and deals I didn’t know was out there! It is that easy to taper it into something you genuinely care about.
All of this is pretty Robo positive, I know, but we still want to use these platforms and understand the bargain we are striking for some of us. On the other hand, data privacy and safety is a big concern, so stay tuned as my next piece is a companion to this about data safety and best privacy practices!