I got back from holiday yesterday in time to witness the kerfuffle about Facebook's psychological newsfeed experiment (HT to this Quartz piece for the title to this post) which was a timely reminder of the sensitivities around the power that reach and data enable.
The reality of-course is that most people have no idea about the amount of data that Facebook hold on them, has access to, and can utilise. Or realise that their newsfeed is algorythmically curated and not simply a chronological list of posts from their friends and connections.
Beyond just the actively input information and activity signals it tracks, Facebook knows a lot about you. Using cookies, Facebook tracks your browsing history and what other sites you visit, even when you're not logged in. It now allows advertisers to target ads on Facebook based on users web-browsing. You can also plug-in third party data that you hold on users in order to target them on the platform. Or you can utilise someone else's third party data (perhaps from data vendors like Datalogix, Acxiom, Epsilon) to identify segments of users. The Facebook mobile app takes account of what other apps you have installed on your phone. It has developed sophisticated facial recognition capabilities that enable it to recognise users in pictures. It can track your location and notify you when friends are nearby. It will soon be able to track what your watching and listening to.
It should be said that Facebook are far from being the only company to do this, or to develop targeting products based on more sophisticated collection and re-application of data. Everyone's at it. Analytics tools enable all kinds of companies to hold all kinds of information about user activity (check out what Buzzfeed knows about you for example). Some organisations even specialise in enabling retailers to find their customers online to enable them to marry offline behaviour with a customised online experience.
It is inevitable that the future of media and content placement (and therefore a significant part of the future of marketing) will incorporate more of this kind of data collection and re-application. IDC say that whilst a significant proportion (34% and rising) of data in the 'digital universe' might be described as useful, only 7% of data is tagged and less than 1% of it is analysed. Those proportions will inevitably rise and yet, according to a Carnegie Mellon study, reading all of the privacy policies an average Internet user encounters in a year would take 76 work days.
So, like the post title suggests, the point is that the power that data enables has to be wielded with care. I'm sure most companies would say that they are already doing that, but it's a fine line and one that is very easy to slip away from.