The Cloud Opened Up and Rained Marketing Data [Social Media Dystopia]

Several months ago I put on my futurist hat and I wondered, “What is the worst thing that could happen with social media?” Maybe it’s because I was reading way too much cyberpunk at the time but this is what I came up with. I’ve been sitting on it because I wasn’t sure what to do with, so like everything else, I offer it up to you. This is the blog post I don’t want to write in 10 years. I don’t really think this will happen but I think it’s important to remember that it is possible. Here’s a PDF of The Cloud Opened Up and Rained Marketing Data [Social Media Dystopia].

The Cloud Opened Up and Rained Marketing Data

Looking back now I feel so foolish, so naive. Social media was supposed to be different. Social media was supposed to change things. It did.

Social media was supposed to make things better. It didn’t.

Should we really be that surprised with the outcome? Every form of marketing started off trying to add value, providing something worthwhile in exchange for people’s time and consideration. No one goes into marketing thinking “I want to grow up to manipulate people.” It just works out that way.

The year is 2020. The last 15 years have been the Golden Age of social media. We live in an “always on” existence. There is no distinction between offline and online. No difference between real, virtual or augmented. Every action has online ramifications; all online activity translates into offline outcomes. We live in the Webbed World.

I think therefore I am. I am therefore I am connected.

Social media was supposed to enable and empower consumers with its powerful content creation tools. At first marketers were scared. The people were empowered. Marketers were supposed to create the content. The content controlled the message. The message controlled the people.

Content is King. Content is the key. Content holds the key to control. Content controls not just the message; content holds the key to controlling the creator.

15 years ago things were different. It was an Age of Enlightenment. Open dialogue across the Web. Real time corporate transparency was rewarded. Consumers felt like they had taken back the Web. Power to the people!

We consumed mass amounts of content. Our appetite seemed unquenchable. Not only did we consume content at an unbelievable rate, we created it at exponential volumes. We filled up hard drives and data centers faster than they could build them.

The problem is; we don’t consume content. We interact with content, we change content, we don’t consume it. What was being stored on all those hard drives in all those servers in all those data centers was our interaction with content, our behavior. Every comment, every share, every status update, every blog post, every like, every click.

Exponential amounts of content and exponential amounts of interactions with that content, stored, analyzed and algorithmically re-purposed.

We knew this. We all knew that this data was out there but we never imagined that it could be tracked to an individual. Everything you ever said, did or looked at, every person you followed or friended would come back and be used against you. That would be the equivalent of shredding all the documents in the Library of Congress and then reassembling them. It can’t be done. And it couldn’t. At least not at first.

The easiest way to get a geek to do something is to tell them it can’t be done.

At first all those reams of data were used within walled gardens. Amazon knew your preferences and that was a good thing because they made your shopping experience better. Netfix knew that one person’s recommendation was 67% likely to be a good recommendation for you, and that was a good thing.

Walled gardens of personal data were okay. It was annoying but safe. That data was very powerful for the company that controlled the walls. We hated that we didn’t control our own data so we railed and complained to set our data free.

But outside the walls in the wild, things weren’t that clear. User behavior began bleeding outside the walls. Not because the companies wanted it, but because we demanded it. How dare they try and keep my information locked up? How dare they? I want my data free. I want to take that with me wherever I go. But we’re lousy about keeping track of our own stuff. We lose our house keys how could we be expected to keep track of our data?

Begrudgingly companies opened up their walls. Our data, our preferences, our behavior ran amuck. It was spread so far and wide and so intermingled with everyone else that there was little fear of anyone making sense of it. Sure at an aggregate level companies could watch trends and harness feedback and sentiment, but it was impossible to tell anything relevant about me.

The easiest way to get a geek to do something is to tell them it can’t be done.

In the business world customer service found themselves moved from the bench to the front row. No longer was customer support seen as a cost center, it was now a point of competitive differentiation. They were the new marketing. But marketing always has and always will exist to drive sales.

At first we began building out personas. We could group like activities into certain buckets. We knew users who exhibited these behaviors were also likely to behave in like patterns given certain circumstances. But to scale that more than just a handful of generic personas didn’t make sense.

Once the box was opened there was no turning back.

As mesh networks became pervasive and companies started to build their own systems on top of that mesh, soon all your activity, location and off line behavior could be tracked with your online behavior.

This was a boon for marketers. Pretty soon I could tell if you clicked on my ad and bought something right then or went to the store the next day to buy it. Your work, personal and mobile browsers were all connected.

The cloud opened up and rained marketing data.

Then we created the Internet of Things. It wasn’t just enough that our phones were smart, soon everything became smart and connected. My devices and all the objects around me were aware of my presence.

Even at the first signs of enslavement things weren’t all bad. They weren’t scary. Social media brought about a lot of good. The World had a voice finally. Social change swept through every culture. But all that good came with a price.

Customer service was better. I only saw ads that I cared about, and only when I cared about them. Not only could we target you with ads exactly when you wanted, we could target ads exactly when you were algorithmically most susceptible.

We began to build algorithms that tracked what you were searching for. How many times did you have to perform that search? How quickly were you searching, clicking?

What time of day was it? What day of the week?

What locations were you visiting? What locations had you visited? Were you traveling alone or with a friend or family member?

What items had you picked up while in the store, but not purchased?

What was the tone of your status updates that day? Were you in a good mood or a bad mood?

Which of your friends did you call, email or message?

Which of your friends are influencers to you about which category of products? What have your friends purchased lately?

How quickly were you traveling through the store? Were you in a hurry or taking your time? Were you in a good mood susceptible to messages of reward or in a bad mood susceptible to messages of comfort?

Have you been sticking to your diet lately?

Did you just break up with your girlfriend/boyfriend?

Which of your favorite brands have a new product or sale going on?

The list goes on. The list fills data centers. And those data centers process that information in real time as you move through the Webbed World. It recalculates your personal algorithm with every click and new event, with each bit of new information you shared on Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, your blog, your online and publicly available offline behavior.

There aren’t many other options really. Most people don’t think about it. They refuse to believe the degree of accuracy these machines have. You could do as some have done those who radically removed all convenience from their lives. You could be anti-social.

Even still most people don’t realize the level of slavery they are in. We know exactly what to offer you, when and at what price. We know how often to advertise to you, in what sequence and what frequency is most effective for preparing you to buy, vote or convert.

We can’t change who you are, but we can convince you that people like you behave a certain way.

Hope you enjoyed it (as much as you can enjoy thoughts of dystopian futures) let me know what you think.

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About Tac Anderson

Social media anthropologist. Communications strategist. Business model junkie. Chief blogger here at New Comm Biz.
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  • http://twitter.com/mbroadhurst mbroadhurst

    Interesting take. I'm not sure I envision the SkyNet future you hint at but I have found myself wondering if the hype around Web 2.0 isn't just a new flavor of the hype around Web 1.0 in around 1997-98 when everything was supposed to change and every day seemed to launch a thousand startups.

    Obviously, the Internet has changed things fundamentally since then, but not in all the ways it promised to in the future (remember how the hardcore early adopters thought it would never be used for commerce… well that didn't exactly hold now did it?) So I do wonder whether in 2020 or 2025 we'll look back at the golden age of social media and see a vastly changed world but one that hasn't changed in the ways we anticipated.

  • http://www.newcommbiz.com tacanderson

    As marketers I think it's important to remember just because we can do something doesn't mean we should.

    Like I said, I don't think this is likely to happen.

  • http://twitter.com/mjmantey Matt Mantey

    and you can opt-out or opt-in transparently for any of that. Very narrow view that social media needs to be supported by or intersect with marketing.

  • http://gordonmattey.wordpress.com gordonmattey

    Yes it is a narrow view, but from my experience of talking with executives in media companies, social media = marketing. They can't separate the two.

    One thing I remember vividly is someone saying, “social media is free marketing”.

    Totally short sighted. Totally missing the value. Totally misunderstanding people and media.

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  • http://www.twitter.com/MarkACarbone Mark A Carbone

    Tac,
    What I have noticed is how so many American bloggers think the Internet is going to continue on it’s current course of empowering the little guy, the consumer to form clusters of organized strength to be able to influence politics, brands, and culture.

    What you wrote has merrit and is already being done as one person commented here. Many software developers are building Social CRM apps for clients right now. SalesForce.com will be there within a few years as well. It’s just a natural progression of doing business. Anticipate and know what your customer wants.

    MY REAL POINT::::
    Months ago I read 50+ articles about predictions/trends for 2010 and up to 2020 and almost everyone predicted in a vacuum. We, as Americans need to consider the real world factor in those predictions. So many people don’t take into account true economic and government trends. More and more governments are clamping down on what their citizens are allowed to do online and it needs to become a factor when predicting future events.

    For example, this new power we as individuals have to gain influence online so quickly if we post a compelling YouTube video that in 6 months ignites us to have a million dedicated followers who trust us upsets the apple cart. I can crowdsource my followers to affect change my way. That is cool but it comes with a price as these social technologies evolve.

    PRICE WE ARE ABOUT TO PAY::::
    The new FCC Chair, Julius Genachowski, has tremendous support to get the “Net Neutrality” regulation pushed through Congress and I have a feeling he will if we don’t wake up.

    On the surface, Net Neutrality looks great but it’s a huge step forward for the government to now decide what we can do online and just one of the many purposely vague loopholes being tacked onto it is, that at any time, if the President deems a carrier, communication network, social network, or website as a threat to national security, he has the power to shut it down without due process.

  • http://www.newcommbiz.com tacanderson

    Social media is primarily driven by marketing because it's the revenue generating portion of the business. Cost centers don't get the budget revenue centers do. As for opting out, check out Tweetsii, it geolocates your tweets even if you opt out of Twitters geo feature.

    And if it makes you this can just as easily be applied to employees, check out this from ReadWriteWeb:
    How would you feel if your employer constantly tracked your activity on Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, YouTube and Twitter in real time? If it's up to Teneros, your employer will soon use the company's new Social Sentry service to follow your every move on social media sites in real time. As Teneros points out, more than 70% of white collar workers have Facebook accounts – which they regularly access during work hours – and a number of corporations like Domino's Pizza and British Airways have recently suffered major damage to their carefully constructed brand images because of their employees' actions on social networks.
    http://www.readwriteweb.com/archives/social_sen

  • mjmantey

    IMHO, social media is a concept rather than channel, so it isn't and won't be tied to any company or organization function. It may be driven by marketing today because it's seen as a channel, but that is waning. The social activities of consumers, employees, employers, advocates, detractors are certainly being shaped by their activities and expectations online today. Interactions with technology and its services are becoming more innate and should continue to rapidly. Marketing will be part of and become part of that stream, but won't and shouldn't necessarily fund it.

    Funny though, as a channel, online social it is raining data and very few orgs have been able to figure out how to use it.

  • http://www.newcommbiz.com tacanderson

    Then we are in violent agreement :)

  • http://www.talmadgeboyd.com/ Talmadge Boyd

    I think the most important question here is, what cyberpunk were you reading?

    But, I digress.

    If I can borrow your Foucaultian hat for a moment, I'd say that the unobserved gaze may be a controlling feature. But in order for that to work, it has to be invisible. If we're aware then we can buck the marketers tags by opting out of them or by open source software that blocks our moves.

  • dsearls

    Here are the problems.

    1) Even the best-informed marketing is still guesswork, and guesswork wastes time and money.
    2) Netflix and Amazon might be good examples of guesswork that's welcomed by users, but they're still silos, they still hog user data, and they're still minimally interoperable. And Amazon is actually starting to suck a bit: http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/doc/2010/01/12/ama
    3) Marketing may be more “conversational” than ever, but it's still not the conversation we called for in Cluetrain. Not when customers are still “consumers” and lack sufficient means for gathering, controlling, and selectively sharing their own data, and expressing their own preferences and choices (and especially money-for-goods demand) outside any company's silo, using open source tools that are public rather than private.

    And the backlash against the future you're talking about here has already started. This is a Good Thing.

    Bonus link: http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/doc/2009/11/11/bey

  • http://www.newcommbiz.com tacanderson

    @dsearls thanks for the comment and the links. like I said, the post is purely hypothetical “what if” but agree that the backlash is getting very real.

  • dsearls

    Yes, thanks back too. I'd like the backlash to be constructive, useful, and native to the users — rather than the usual appeals to BigCos and BigGovs for protection.

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