Fiction alert: Lucinda Parsons of Kankakee, IL passed away this day in 1904, widely recognized as the last person in the United States to enjoy true privacy. She was assumed to be about 110 years old and claimed to have seen George Washington on a white horse.
By all appearances she never applied for credit, never ordered anything through the mail, never had a phone number, never received a government identification card nor received any government benefit, never paid any income tax (because there wasn’t any at that time), never served in any capacity on a jury or in any other civic function, never used a bank, never had a job, never married, never had her picture taken, never was arrested, never went to a doctor or hospital, had no children, nor was her birth recorded, and since she “lived upstairs” with relatives, had no address of her own and in all likelihood never received any personal correspondence; but her passing was noted in a local paper.
Today we hear plenty of concern about online privacy threats, and to many it may seem a demon born of the Internet. But the concerns go back much farther than the first time Google sold a targeted ad based on search history.
Privacy Concerns in the Moptop Era
After the era of Ms. Parsons, it’s very likely everyone in the U.S. has had their privacy violated in any number of ways bound to be shocking if the truth were known. It struck me that we’ve been fretting about our privacy for quite some time (much pre-dating Facebook), and this was confirmed to me when I read an article in an old Life magazine about the erosion of privacy. At the time it was written, the Beatles had played Ed Sullivan but not yet Shea Stadium. And there was a cri de coeur from the writer, based on a couple of books that had been published, about the absolutely appalling lack of privacy endured by the everyday American.
According to the article, the average American is “a poor hapless chump who is spied upon in almost every activity of his life, who has fewer secrets than goldfish [in a bowl]…”
Government, apparently, was snooping quite enough (income tax and other unpleasant behavior tracking), but “industry,” “plagued by pilferage,” was more shameless. Spies were common in the workplace. Microphones were hidden in lavatories. Shoppers and plant employees were carefully observed. Dossiers were compiled. No doubt it continues today.
In one academic incident, a university miked up the bedrooms of certain young marrieds on campus; and when the study was revealed to the victims, none of them seemed to care, and none objected to the use of the collected data! Perhaps the urge to share all was just social media waiting to happen.
The Great Value Exchange
But the article went on to say that most of the privacy invasion (apart from the bugged washrooms) was initiated because people wanted something from someone else; and in return were willing to provide information about themselves.
For instance, they may have wanted to borrow money. And the bank wanted to know a few things about John Q. before writing him a check. Or, perhaps John Q. wanted insurance to protect his family. It turns out that the insurer needed at least some confidence the applicant wouldn’t go dark moments after paying the first premium. So they asked a lot of questions about health and habits and such. And kept the answers on file.
Clearly understood if not articulated by the parties, there was always an exchange of information for value.
Which is what we have today, on the web, in mobile, social, and on our tablets and wired televisions. We have an exchange of information for value. The free services available today on the web and beyond are truly astonishing in comparison with what “industry” used to give away in ages gone by. In an earlier eon, you could mail in a coupon and get an extra pack of cigarettes. Today, you can communicate with the entire world, and especially all of your friends, with words, pictures, video, and soon, no doubt, holographic presence. For free!
I’m not much of a Facebook user because I’m not avid about sharing the way some folks are. I do use LinkedIn because it seems to offer more value for the information I share.
So when next we hear about the information we share on the web amounting to an invasion of privacy, we ought to think about that exchange of value. There would be no social media if they could not track what you do, or sell that information to advertisers. There would be much less in your browser – maybe only e-commerce sites. And many, many more paywalls.
From the marketer’s point of view, the web is a two-way channel. It communicates to the prospect or customer; and compiles data about customers’ behavior.
A Change of Pace
Perhaps the most astonishing thing today is the pace at which data is being gathered; and the way data is being combined in ways never before possible (except by enormous companies that long have had the near-unlimited resources it would have taken to mine the data they had collected). Today, new digital intelligence applications are beginning to flood the market, and what I have called “convergence analytics” will likely be a growing trend in the next couple of years. These products are all aimed squarely at what many might call “privacy”; and they plan to use that “private” data in so many new and insightful ways it will seem almost fanciful.
But is it really “private” data? There are exceptions to the paradigm of course. But what most marketers are doing is tracking the record of your interaction with content you have freely chosen to interact with. And they’re going to be doing more and more of it, with better tools, and faster.
My prediction is that some will holler about privacy but most will accept the exchange, because so far it’s been a pretty good value for the customer. And what you’ll see on your screens, largely for free, will likely get more robust and more engaging. Just as likely, it will continue to be perceived as a decent value for the provision of data about your preferences.
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