Information has always been power. Now it’s money, too. You get an invitation to a meeting. You’d like to go, but in order to accept, you have to sign up and join a website, check the box that allows them to send you “information” –which turns out to be spam. You read an article, want to comment, but before it gets posted, you have to sign up for a blog, even though you already have one on another system.
Why do all these places want you to sign up and join? It’s not to put the “social” in media. It’s to get your information. Why? Because information available through cookies (small pieces of software placed on your computer without your permission) is gold to marketers. Big marketing companies gather tiny pieces of information on you. All the time. If you are on your computer, your moves are tracked. What websites you visit, how long you stay there, how many pages you look at, what you look at on a page. The marketing companies correlate this information–they know your age, your birthdate (you put that on Facebook, remember?) where you live (you allowed that on Twitter, remember?), what size clothing and shoes you wear, where and how often you travel, how much you spend shopping online. If you don’t care about your privacy, they also have hundreds of photos of you, the name and type of your pets, what your pets eat, what you eat, how you spend your time.
If you have a grocery or drug store discount card, the companies gather what you buy and how often, how much money you spend on each transaction. This is combined with your photos, age, clothing size and address. The data mining companies also have your pets, their names, what you feed them, what accessories you buy for them. Gathered in one package, they may well know more details about you than most of your friends.
So who cares? This information about you is packaged and sold. The ads that appear on your computer are not accidental, they are targeted to you. When I switched my birthdate to my moms, I no longer got Uggs boots ads, I got ads for pharmacy coupons and diabetic equipment information. (Yep, my mom was diabetic.) That means the internet is no longer wide open and to take you where you want to go, it means you are guided and fed information the marketing companies think you should see.
The common belief that everything on the internet should be free has been replaced with the idea that information can be monetized–someone is making money from your information and your choices.
It may not bother you, but it bothers me. First of all, my private information is just that–private. If I want to take part in surveys, it’s one thing, but having a marketing company in my computer is another. But the second part is actually what bothers me more–monetizing information means that the people who have money get the information. The bigger the company, the more money, the less privacy you have from pharmaceutical companies, insurance companies, and marketers.
You apply for insurance and are denied. They don’t have to tell you why, but they know it’s because you have a pit bull and haven’t purchased a muzzle. Or have bought a lot of alcohol in the last six months. Or have a prescription for a pain medication that isn’t corroborated on your medical records.
The other part of the worry is that in this economy people who need cash are willing to monetize their blogs, tweets, and Facebook. That means writers are being asked to write marketing material for nothing–they get paid by how many people visit a product site from their blog, or by how many people purchase a product. That means the writing is discounted, but the result is paid for. What writing wouldn’t be tempted to lie a little or to say things they don’t really believe to get the reader to click over? That translates to raising the “really?” level from marketing writing to all writing.
It’s not a good direction. I think J.C. Penny’s paying kids to post haul videos, grocery product companies paying people to say good things about their product is turning us all into marketing writers, shilling for a buck. It turns friendship into a selling opportunity and friends into money generators. It makes me feel queasy because I don’t like the idea of monetizing friendship and I like it even less to think that the people with the most money will have access to information I didn’t want to sell.
—Quinn McDonald is a writer who trains people to communicate more clearly.