Wednesday 17th January 2018,

The Other Side of Privacy: Benefits of Targeted Advertising?

It’s funny how scholarship, especially work in the social sciences and humanities, follows trends. As much as we try to separate ourselves from “the industry” — this is especially true of those of us in the much-maligned “cultural studies” — our research topics often mirror what the industry is interested in, which is fine, perhaps preferable, but it’s often those who criticize the industry the most who fall into this category.

One of the latest waves in new media scholarship is privacy, or, what happens when user identities become commodities online. I would never say “don’t study that,” because that’s silly, but I do think a small point is missing in the debate over whether targeting based on private information is “bad” or “good.” I wonder if I can broaden the debate.

Yes, Targeting is Creepy

Many of us have had moments when we see an ad online and we wonder: how did they find me? My latest happened today when I saw the ad on the left appear on Facebook. Thinking backwards, it’s obvious how I got this ad, I just didn’t now targeting had gotten so good. I’ve received gay ads before, and a few black ads, but this is an ad for a national study looking for gay men of all races; Facebook got me the right ad: two black men. I rarely see ads with two black men, so it caught my eye. And of course they knew I was in Philadelphia (it’s a multi-city national study).

Many of my friends are black, and gay, and some of things I “like” (which are very few) correlate with those as well, so it all makes sense. Still, it’s a little unnerving when a billion-dollar corporation knows you so well.

So: I get it. Even though I’m not a scholar focused on privacy, which is an incredibly complicated arena, I understand a  loss of privacy and the targeted ads it engenders is creepy, downright scary for some. The now-resolved controversy over the possible sale of gay-teen publication XY‘s database of users only underscores the potential pitfalls when personal identities become tangible commodities.

I am also, by the way, very aware of the legitimate arguments made against Facebook’s specific policies, which essentially amounts to duping consumers and coming up with a policy that biases the middle/upper classes, a point well-argued by danah boyd.

I don’t want to downplay the importance of privacy, but I do want to suggest that academic discontent on policy debates obscures an important question: what does more targeting, reliant as it is on user information, do for media?

More Information, Better Targeting, More Content

The truth is targeting online is still not where it needs to be. Advertisers and marketers would like much more information about whom they are serving ads to. Facebook is the zenith, because it has so much information, and information that can directly lead to sales (favorite books, movies, social circles, taste cultures, etc.).

Advertising online is still maturing, meaning we haven’t seen the last of companies trying to get and use personal information to deliver us marketing messages.

For some this is cause for concern, but for me, I see opportunity. Why?

Advertising Supports Free Media, Including Independent Media

Most of my time is spent talking to independent producers and entrepreneurs trying to create new content, often for under-served communities: ethnic minorities, gays, women. As I’ve been noting, a handful of sites have started up as the “Hulu for” various groups. Throughout the years, other start-ups have tried to broaden the web market for comedy, web series, independent film, etc. (A sample of those sites below).

A crucial measure of whether these sites can survive is whether they can secure advertising for their sites. Right now, it’s relatively easy to get ads served on online video, but it’s still rather difficult to get high CPMs (cost-per-mille, the amount of money per 1,000 units an advertiser will pay the publisher).

A crucial avenue to higher and better ad rates on videos is better tools and information for targeting the audience. Right now, Facebook’s video features, and its newer projects (like Facebook Live) are attempts to harness a level of targeting still unavailable to most publishers on the web.

My point: improved metrics, which might come at some unknown cost to privacy (unknown because the system has yet to fall into place), might support a lot of independent media.

Do We Value Media Diversity? If So, At What Cost?

The criticisms of corporate privacy policy currently underway in the academy very much concern the “corporate” nature of the activity, and indeed, corporations have the most to gain from looser privacy standards.

We should remember advertising supports “free” media, and a wide range of media at that, not all of it corporate and not all of it bad. As one writer noted, users don’t give up their personal information for nothing. What they get in return is free content, because in truth  the metrics for web advertising right now are not developed enough to support any large business, let alone the little guys. (A crucial question I’m sidestepping here is what counts as “independent” — is “non-conglomerate owned” enough? — and what is the value of independence? For me, I’m generally for any system that allows independent, black, female, whatever filmmakers to get paid, but I’m not saying the issue is black and white, that independent is necessarily better or more meaningful).

I could be proven wrong quite soon. It may be, in five years, the political maturity of the web (net neutrality) and the infrastructure of digital content (apps and death of the browser, subscription services) will make ad/sponsor-supported independent media a blip in media history, a potential unsupported by a ruthless market.

But right now, there’s cause for hope for a more diverse and egalitarian media landscape, but a potential cost may be some privacy on the part of users. It’s a trade-off we need to negotiated openly and responsibly, but we should at least engage the possibility rather than deny its legitimacy.

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About The Author

Aymar Jean Christian is assistant professor of communication at Northwestern University. He writes about media and society for a number of publications. For more information, click the "About" tab at the top of the page.

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