The Tracking Meme and Its Perils


It’s time for a sit-down between marketers and site visitors about what’s fair and not fair in the way online behavior is measured, and here is why:

Maybe you’ve noticed how memes (user-uploaded photographs with often witty captions) have become all the rage. Some say they started on the Reddit site, and now they seem to be everywhere. One modest political Facebook page alone has created over 40 of them in the past couple of weeks, and some of the memes, while appealing to a narrow slice of the electorate, have gone viral with thousands of shares. People seem to get a huge lift from the instant satire evident in many memes.

Small surprise then that someone would marry the popularity of memes and the mechanics of Twitter. Tiny Post is a startup where you tweet your memes. Sounds great.

But my column is about what got this startup in trouble with some of its meme-ers, and how I think it illustrates the perpetual tension between what now unabashedly are called “users” and what we call “digital analytics” ; specifically in this case, “bots.”

I’ve never cared much for the word “users” because it sounds like what sociologists used to call those who partook in chemical stimulation. That the word has lost its negative connotation doesn’t change the fact that those who call their users “users” clearly at some point must have felt the netizens availing themselves of free stuff on the Internet were somehow non-contributory. Else they would have called them “community members” or something at least as palatable.

So now digital analytics happens to be synonymous with “user tracking,” which admittedly sounds like a police detect-and-deter operation. Of course it isn’t, for marketers (though it might be for law enforcement): but again, the nomenclature indicates the mindset. And it sets marketers up against their customer base in a way that isn’t helpful to either one.

Tiny Post wanted to better understand what drove greater popularity of user-generated content that was enabled by its technology. Perhaps its mistake was to use “bots” (sophisticated tracking codes) to follow individual users instead of trends. Tiny Post was watching the behavior of actual early adopters to find out why some were more popular and influential than others. With this data, it felt it could improve interaction on its site and increase overall site effectiveness. Not knowing the owners of Tiny Post (which apparently is a tiny company), I can’t say whether they were thinking about how they could help their “users” become even more popular. Whether that was or was not their goal, it seems a sensible one if it was.

But it seems at least some of the early-adopting Tiny Posters didn’t much consider the equation. When word got out that bots might be tracking them, there was a Tiny Uproar at least large enough to have TechCrunch call up a suddenly beleaguered Tiny Post to ask why it was doing this and what it was going to change in light of the objections. Tiny Post promised immediately to stop using bots. End of story. Hurrah for privacy on the ‘net! And long live Tiny Post (it sounds like a great idea).

But that’s why I think it’s time for a sit-down.

Because in a way, it’s (bear with me here) a little bit churlish of someone who is leveraging sophisticated technology for free, in order to reach and influence others, for free, to feel like nothing is owed to whomever created that technology they must feel provides some benefit to them. The minimum price might justifiably be characterized as “may we please see what you are doing while you are in our ‘shop’ that charges you zero for the goods you enjoy?” Or maybe the visitor feels like the posting of content is contribution enough.

You may or you may not accept that argument. But why the outrage over the way a technology creator wants to better understand the way their own tool operates in the real world? Isn’t there something just a little bit phony about that outrage? Isn’t it time for the outrage to get a little more sophisticated?

By that I mean: can’t we – or in fact, don’t we need to – differentiate between marketers looking for data about how their assets perform, and, say, the government watching your keystrokes to see if you fit the profile of a political enemy?

I know there is a relationship between technologies. I know tracking can be used for good or ill, and that sometimes the grey area is larger than the bald spot on a guy with a comb-over. But really, shouldn’t content contributors cooperate a little more willingly with technology providers as they try to understand how their own creations can be improved? And if you don’t want to be tracked, you can of course, not interact.

And that’s the leverage visitors have. If they don’t like the party, they leave. And the host of the party, who only wanted to know who showed up and what they were doing in the kitchen, is left with lots of nachos and no party.