We Missed the Opportunity to Make the Right Choice and Build a Better Internet
For some time I blamed Google and Facebook for their role in what the web has become. What I missed to acknowledge was my responsibility, as a developer, creator, newsletter curator, in the shape the internet was taking. I had no problems in embedding tracking scripts in exchange for some website analytics. Facebook convinced me that I should include a tracking pixel on my pages in exchange of gaining visibility on their platform.
I have read the mantra "If you don't pay for the product, then you are the product" over and over again. What I failed to acknowledge early enough is that the mantra is not true when you are designer, a marketeer, or a web developer . You are not the product, but your guests data is. We had plenty of opportunities to follow a different path, but we failed at each one of them. We are insatiable when it comes to data .
Google first, Facebook later, accustomed us to doing things their way. They told us that we could laser focus our ad expenditure on people we believed would be better customers. They gave us the tools to chase customers who abandoned carts before paying for the products. They told us that we must optimize at all costs, even if we don't know what we are optimizing for .
We came to the extreme of recording the mouse movements of people on our websites. We can track, store, and replay how a person moves and clicks on our pages. We are convinced that we need these data to optimize . We may even learn what AB testing is and deploy it to our product. Flexible algorithms will take care of doing multi-parametric analysis to tell us that adding a ' this is the last one available on our website ' will induce users to spend 10% more.
And this is true for big and small players online. Anyone who starts a blog adds tracking to keep the vanity metrics on check. From where, how often, how long, we can know almost everything from the visitors of our small corner of the internet. As a counterpart, the services that give us the insights we crave for, are happy collecting user data across domains.
Something that GDPR showed us is the amount of tracking services out there. If you don't click on the 'accept all' button, you get to choose how many companies are collecting your data and behavior online. Tracking users to such lengths is the decision of the websites you visit. It wasn't Google nor Facebook that forced The New York Times to track and share with third parties your every move.
As if the web wasn't already a dark place, smartphones appeared and enabled the same platforms to track people even outside the container that is a web browser. And we, app developers, added all the code that we needed to know where our users are at every moment. We share the information with ad networks in exchange of an apparent increased revenue.
We are also the ones who decided to buy ads without even questioning the morality of it all. It takes no time to learn what CPA (cost-per-acquisition) means. The only thing that matters is that the lower, the better. We quickly learned to leverage the algorithms made by the bigger players. We are the ones who pushed Facebook and Google into an attention war because, we must admit it, we share the same moral than the services we pay for.
Is it all lost?
Even though I would like to be an optimist, I don't think we can build a healthier internet without external forces. We built an entire market around some presumptions such as how much a company can grow. Investors push for 10X year after year, founders are met with wide open arms from algorithmic companies that offer the tools they think they need to achieve it.
We can't count on the free market to excerpt any force in a direction different from where we are going right now. This leaves only forces beyond the market, such as government regulation, to bring us to a place where we won't end up self-destructing the liberties, the identity, and the youth that previous generations experienced.
And we are in a unique position of power . We understand what is going on as no one else, we can choose the services we include on our websites. We can find alternatives to the data obsession of managers and investors. The best we can do is ask why whenever someone is tempted to collect even more data. Being mindful of the internet we have been building, and whether that is the internet we want to keep building.
Individual changes are not even going to tip the scale. There's an interlinked network of interests, data gatherers, and data aggregators on the one hand, and marketing requirements on the other that is in no ones monetary interest to change it. But individual changes compound, especially when they include outreach.
If anybody expects a change, we should start with ourselves. Stop tracking your users for a month. Don't check if they open the newsletter and how often. See how much and what ways the idea of not knowing impacts you.