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Big Data and Big Brother

Phones augment reality and can connect us to anyone, anywhere. Computers control our cars, think like people and listen to our conversations. The exponential growth of technology has of course led to great new conveniences and ways of living. However, with this comes the loss of our privacy to varying degrees. It is hard for the average American to enjoy their day without their data being tracked. (Whether or not they know it's being tracked - that's another story.) Every single action leaves a trace. Someone will know you visited this page. On what sort of device you view this page. And how much time you spent on this page. This information is neatly analyzed and packaged, commodified, and sold to the highest bidder. Your data is as much a product as the Amazon jeans you saw on your Instagram discover page and immediately had to purchase are a product (#ShopSustainably folks!). Okay, so what does this mean?

A state under constant surveillance is the start of many a dystopian sci-fi novel, and yet it seems like we are finally in Orwell’s future. Through almost constant analysis of our personal data such as location, user preferences, sexuality, race, or what color underwear you’re wearing, Big Data is meant to increase the efficiency and relevancy of products that are being developed by analyzing data sets on consumers. Big Data could be compared to Big Brother… but Big Data is neutral. Technology is not inherently unethical. What we do with it, and how we navigate the human behavior surrounding it, is the issue. We all have a choice: to be as respectful and ethical as possible when it comes to what we do with Big Data or to be unethical and use it as a tool for totalitarianism. The latter sounds a bit Orwellian, does it not? When Big Data seems to be around every corner, how can we separate digital marketing efforts from the efforts of Big Brother? Digital marketing must be ethical and as transparent as possible in this age to make consumers feel a sense of trust.

Digital marketing is novel in the sense that there is a constant feedback loop. In traditional marketing, there is no feedback loop. A billboard can’t see you, doesn’t know you and is thus probably less relevant to you. A commercial for McDonald’s on TV doesn’t know you’re currently on a diet. With online marketing, algorithms are taking your information and changing what you see next. Your Instagram account knows you’re on a diet (in fact it may be the reason you’re on it!). Of course, this isn’t exactly new. There is the fabled story of the teen who kept receiving mailers and coupons for baby products from a grocery store, thus revealing to her parents that she was pregnant before she was able to tell them. The grocery store loyalty card is not nearly as personal as the data we put on Instagram, for example, and not nearly as pervasive. Heck, most people check social media right before bed, and first thing in the morning. It is constant, not occasional.

We’ve all had that moment where we mention a restaurant or a type of food and within ten minutes there is an ad coming through your Instagram stories. If this kind of marketing is a constant process, how can those in the digital marketing space make it appear that an ad is targeted to your tastes without being too hyper-specific and creepy? This is the job of a digital marketer - to be a contradiction. How can we continue to extrapolate data without appearing to do so? There is a very fine line we have to walk - on one side is the empowerment of consumers through more relevant media and the illusion of choice and on the other side is the complete loss of consumer privacy and personal data. Presently, in the United States, there is no single set of data privacy standards. There are, of course, some rules in place about communications regarding health and education, but these are not comprehensive. Attempts at making data privacy standards have never taken off, as it would be tricky for lawmakers to find a fine line between protecting information, and stifling creation and innovation. It’s all a very delicate balancing act, in which ethics are what we cling to stay stable.

For digital marketing to be successful it must be ethical, especially since our expansive digital landscape is largely ungoverned. At Skigital, we tend to follow a basic code of ethics to ensure we are helping our clients by delivering successful campaigns.

  1. Don’t distort or over-exaggerate products/services.

    1. Be realistic.

  2. Don’t over-promise anything.

    1. This leads to under-delivery, which creates dissatisfaction.

  3. The relationship between consumer and business should be mutually beneficial.

    1. Invite collaboration between the two.

    2. A one-sided relationship in which the business is just taking and not giving is pesky.

  4. Ensure consent has been granted before pushing marketing out to consumers.

  5. Ask yourself: Would you want your data used in the way you are using it?

    1. If you are creating an email campaign, stop and think “would I be happy to receive this email in my own inbox? Or would I be annoyed?”

  6. Above all else, just be honest.

When you make the choice to work with Skigital, you are making the choice to contribute to a more ethical online landscape, and that is a very powerful thing to do.


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