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Opt-ions Four

We’re at the turning point in our discussion on the blogosphere and social media.


Image: Ali T via Flickr

There used to be a guy who worked at Politics and Prose — my favourite bookstore — who knew my reading habits so well that he could recommend or dismiss with frightening accuracy.  Let’s call him Bookstore Boy.  There were books that he saved me from buying (and when I checked them out of the library, he was totally right — I returned them without reading them) and others that I would have never found if he hadn’t pointed them out.  He introduced me to Jasper Fforde (and made the store a lot of money because that man wrote a lot of books) and kept me away from… well… I won’t list those authors here out of politeness.  Mostly because what he was telling me was that he didn’t think I would enjoy those books.  And he was almost always right.

I really appreciated Bookstore Boy and was amazed that he could do this for so many customers.  I wasn’t the only person who got his recommendations.  Somehow he kept all his regular customer’s preferences inside his brain.  And yeah, I probably bought more books that I would have under other circumstances because I felt honoured that someone paid close attention to my reading habits and could pinpoint which pieces of traditional literature I would enjoy and which ones would bore me.

Bookstore Boy no longer works there.  The current staff no longer knows me.  It definitely has affected my shopping habits to be without his guidance.

It felt good when Bookstore Boy paid attention to me and curated my reading list, so I don’t know why it feels like such a violation when a data mining company amasses a list of my preferences using an algorithm and tries to feed me advertisements they think would resonate with me.  Especially since I put that information out there.  Bookstore Boy operated under a lot of guesswork as to which books would resonate with me, because he knew it wasn’t just subject matter.  That the voice of the narrator played a huge role in whether or not I connected with the book.  There was a much greater chance for Bookstore Boy to get it wrong, but I never minded when he stepped in to take a book out of my hands and replace it with something he thought I’d like more.  Whereas data companies are merely feeding me — via ads on the side of Facebook or Gmail — what I already said I liked.

With the Bookstore Boy, it was flattering.

With the data mining company, it feels like a violation.

When Bookstore Boy told me I would like Jasper Fforde, I confidently purchased the first book on his recommendation.

When Barnes and Noble tells me that I may like this author, it feels like a stalker breathing down my neck.

Data mining companies have — on average — about 1500 pieces of information about you.  Yes, you.

That’s a lot of information.  There are a little under 314 million Americans.  That means that they have at least 1,500 pieces of information on about 2/3rds of all Americans.  And less information — but they still have information — on 1/3rd of all Americans.  If you are currently an adult living in the US that uses the Internet, chances are you fit into that 2/3rds category.

And for the most part, so what?  What does it matter if Barnes and Noble knows I like dystopian fiction?  What does it matter if a site knows where I like to buy pizza or where I go on vacation or which activities my kids enjoy?  Who cares?  They can serve me ads all they want, and it’s always my decision whether I buy something.  If you look at it from a helpful angle, giving me targeted ads that actually reflect my interests is more helpful than getting bombarded with a lot of noise, most of it non-applicable to my life.  For instance, I like hearing about new books.  If the ads I got were for new books, and an algorithm could fine tune the work of a human, somehow being programed to know which sort of books not only overlapped by genre but by type of voice… well… it would be like having a virtual version of my Bookstore Boy.

So why does it feel so damn creepy when a site essentially says — like a stalker — I know you.  I know all about you.  I’m watching you.  I want to be close to you.  What is the difference between Facebook and a stalker?  Because they sort of look like the same thing sometimes.  Especially once we remove the human contact afforded by my Bookstore Boy.  In both cases, the goal was to move a product, sell books.  But in one, I had the warmth of human contact guiding the process.  And in the other, I have a cold algorithm which feels as if it takes much more than it gives.  It feels like someone walking on my heels, chanting, “Buy something!  Buy something!  What about this?  What about that?  Buy!”

And amid all of this, I need to say that I get a large chunk of my book recommendation these days from Amazon’s customers-also-bought ticker midway down the page.  It feels a little bit like a hands-off Bookstore Boy, quietly stating, “this is what other people also liked who liked this book.  If it matters to you.”

As a side note, the Daily Dot had a post recently about privacy online that said, “If data is the most-coveted resource of our time, we should harvest and mine it sustainably.”  If we harvest data too quickly, in a far-reaching collection frenzy, people will get scared and stop putting stuff online.  But if we mine it sustainably, then data should be there for the taking for years and years to come.  Sort of a scary thought, nu?

If we’ve put it online; if we’ve listed all sort of details on our social media sites, liking companies and checking in with our location when we go to a store or restaurant, knowing full well that it will be used to sell us something in the future, is it really a violation?  And why do people call it a violation when we’ve offered up all the information in the first place and all another person (or computer) has done is pull together all the facts into one, neat document?


1 A. { 06.22.14 at 7:40 am }

I’ll admit to feeling freaked out by this, but I can also tell you that kids do not. I have taught 1984 for years, and I always take them down this data-mining road and ask them to write an editorial arguing whether Orwell’s warning (related to privacy) is valid in our world. Teenagers, in large part, DO NOT CARE: they are totally accustomed to their transparent lives. Generationally, I think that’s an interesting component when considering where this is all headed.

2 Neil { 06.22.14 at 8:04 am }

Because your bookstore guru was a human being, and was bound to make mistakes based on his own personality, there is a charm to what he was doing in his personalization of your reading habits. Whether you knew it or not, there was a back and forth. I’m sure he got as much pleasure trying to connect with you in his choices as you got when he was right. Of course, even this situation could have become uncomfortable if taken too far, and he started following you home to bring you new books.

The data mining is not a relationship. The computer gains no pleasure from your data. It is just used to push things back onto you so you will buy stuff. There is no charm here.

3 Buttermilk { 06.22.14 at 10:58 am }

Algorithms don’t feel creepy to me. People can be creepy…they can overstep boundaries and make me feel uncomfortable if they seem to know too much about me or be too interested in my life. I think people who are uneasy about targeted advertising are falsely applying human characteristics to something that is not human. There is no actual person collecting this information about me. Algorithms are completely transparent in their recommendations. A human has the ability to make me feel pressure to buy something because there is a relationship. Bookstore Boy pleases you & to some degree your purchases are a reciprocation. I feel no pressure to reciprocate with an algorithm. I think it’s harmless. Just for reference, I am 34 years old. When I was about 25 I had my underwear & photos of me stolen from my home. A person did that. That’s violating.

4 a { 06.22.14 at 10:59 am }

I have my own Bookstore Boy in the form of my favorite librarian…who is about to quit because she’s having a baby. 🙁

I guess the difference for me is that algorithms such as the ones used by the data miners cannot function in the same way a human brain does. This is extremely relevant to me because I see it in my work. We use algorithms to search fingerprint databases. In some cases, it can be done “lights – out,” i.e. with no human intervention. But when you’re dealing with smaller bits of data, human review of the algorithm results is necessary because the computer cannot catch the fine nuances. Yet. It gets better all the time, but humans are still necessary to the process.

That’s where the data mining goes wrong and feels icky. I might search a vacation spot and then decide against it. But the algorithm doesn’t know I didn’t like what I saw – it just knows I was interested at one point. So it keeps trying to draw me back, like a persistent car salesman who asks “what will it take to get you in a car today?”after you’ve told him you’re not buying today. That’s why it feels different from a Bookstore Boy – he could tell the difference between when you didn’t buy because of reasons unrelated to the product and when you didn’t buy because of the product itself. So he wouldn’t keep trying to sell you something you and he knew you didn’t want.

I like to tell Facebook that all their ads are offensive, just for fun and to screw with the algorithm.

5 Rebecca { 06.22.14 at 11:59 am }

I’m still on the fence about the data collection. I do miss the personal aspect of a knowledgeable clerk.

6 Queenie { 06.22.14 at 12:15 pm }

Bookstore Boy is providing old-fashioned customer service. Presumably, you responded positively to his initial overtures, and all subsequent ones. That’s what’s different about FB. If you hadn’t wanted his input, Bookstore Boy would have walked away. FB is there, in our business, whether we want it or not. We have no choice, no say in the matter. It’s the opposite of customer service.

7 Lori Lavender Luz { 06.22.14 at 2:33 pm }

What Neil said about relationship.

I have an analogy, O queen of analogies. You know how a woman should be able to wear whatever she wants, in charge of her own wardrobe choices?

Well, she may choose to walk city streets in an outfit that might result in catcalls, whistles, uninvited gestures — maybe even rude ones. She’s putting out there what she wants for her own reasons, and nevertheless she may feel violated as a result of that, even though the violation stems from her own decisions.

8 May ProblemUterus { 06.22.14 at 2:50 pm }

I guess I don’t have as much of a problem with this as you do. My thought is, so what? They know that this week I bought Diana Gabaldon’s new book, shoelaces, three cheap pairs of earbuds, and liquid laundry detergent. Where is the evil stalker factor there? I don’t agree that the new way takes more than it gives. Yes, it takes some personal information, but that “customers also bought” has given me a lot in return. I offer discover that some critical accessory to whatever I’m purchasing isn’t in in the box, and save myself a lot of time having to either run out to get it, or wait several days for another shipment. Time is one if my most precious commodities these days, and that impersonal algorithm saves me a lot of it. I’m quite willing to barter information on which shoelaces I bought in exchange. I guess the difference is awareness. I freely share my personal shopping information, which I don’t really value much, for a savings in time, which I do. It seems like a win-win.

9 May ProblemUterus { 06.22.14 at 2:52 pm }

Man, autocorrect really got me up there.

10 Megan { 06.22.14 at 7:20 pm }

In all honestly, the most annoying thing about this for me is that after I internet ‘window shop’ by loading up a cart full of shoes on DSW.com, the ads follow me to every site. Makes it a little harder to avoid hitting ‘checkout.’

11 knottedfingers { 06.22.14 at 7:51 pm }

I don’t mind data collection. I don’t really pay attention and the ads that follow me around online have actually helped me find things. Now they can occasionally be pretty creepy. I’m reading a star trek fanfiction and up comes some ad for a gay love site. LOL

12 Jill A. { 06.22.14 at 8:16 pm }

For me, it is the personal connection that is missing from the targeted ads. A good salesperson helps you, helps the company. It is a win-win situation. I like good sales help. Targeted ads just want my money.

I helped a young friend about three years ago. Her son had been stillborn and I did some research for her on urns for the ashes. Two days of a freaking blue teddy bear urn following me around the net and I learned tons about the computer. How to block ads, clean the computer, delete history and cookies, anti-virus applications. Even managed to impress my kids with my new knowledge! That is the only good thing I ever got out of a targeted ad.

If these companies know so much about me, they had better learn that I will not buy anything they shove in my face. End of story. Until they pick up that piece of information, I’ll assume they don’t know me at all and ignore or avoid all ads.

13 Chris { 06.22.14 at 9:41 pm }

Both feel creepy to me. I’d stop going to a store where someone was “recommending” to me. I want to pick out what I want, and I want to be anonymous both in the “real” world and the “online” world. I’m also one of those rare people who won’t list preferences on Facebook or other social media sites. Sure, I use it to keep in touch, but you won’t find out what I read, listen to, watch, or where I go, eat, or shop. I can’t get away from Amazon’s recommendations because we shop the re altogether too much. But, I essentially ignore them. I will continue to read the summary of a book, see if it looks interesting and go forth…and of course, stick to my favorite authors. 🙂 I will continue to hold on to my data as much as I can….for as long as I can.

14 Alexicographer { 06.22.14 at 10:25 pm }

What @ Queenie said, and also what @Jill A. said, though not in a specific ALI context (as hers was). Bookstore Boy would know that the books I just bought about fly fishing were for my DH, and would not start recommending fly fishing books for me.

15 deathstar { 06.23.14 at 1:54 am }

Recently when I was checking out hotels in Toronto, I started to get ads for hotels on almost every page I went on. That creeped me out. Why, Deathstar, how about this place or this place or hello, what about this place? We even know when you want to travel. Ewwww.

16 Persnickety { 06.24.14 at 8:42 am }

What I find scary about the data that is being collected is the things you are NOT offering up that can be inferred from the information you do give. I don’t want that data out there.

The recommendations from a person also come with surrounding small talk and body language. If you were just looking and didn’t need a recommendation, bookstore boy would probably have backed off. The internet recommendations never do. Incidentally bookstore boy is apparently the holy grail of marketers because we trust person to person recs so much more. I polished off Brandwashed on my vacation, and it was a bit disturbing.

17 Tiara { 06.24.14 at 12:27 pm }

I heard a story on today’s news & thought of you & this series. Apparently the the technology is on the verge of launching so that when you arrive at a drive thru, the menu will adjust to what they think you’ll want based on info from your phone, etc…can you imagine?

18 Battynurse { 06.25.14 at 3:32 am }

Mostly I don’t mind a lot of this. I use what I want, toss the rest and so on. It was annoying though when a few months ago I bought a box of diapers for a guy at Target who asked if I had any work for him . Two days later I started getting all kinds of baby advertisements which made me want to scream. Thankfully they didn’t last long.

19 Mrs T (missohkay) { 06.25.14 at 7:02 pm }

I’m obviously slowly catching up on your blog during my workday today, shhh! THIS is the question that intrigued me from The Book. We put all this information about ourselves out there in dribs and drabs and it’s information we’re clearly comfortable with sharing publicly or semi-publicly. But if someone complied all that information on me and presented it to you in a “dossier on Mrs T” — that is creepy. Aggregating it feels like an invasion of my privacy even though I willingly gave up the privacy of all the little pieces and have no objection to any one piece standing alone.

(c) 2006 Melissa S. Ford
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