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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Big data advertising holds benefits for the user

If you use social media—and you probably do—you don’t pay for it. Platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter have millions of users, each of whom pays no money. But social media services don’t run themselves; companies spend millions of dollars to build and maintain the infrastructure required to ensure that your feed loads in less than a second. As the number of users increases, so do these operating costs. So why do you get to use social media for free? Because while you’re using it, it’s using you.

Social media companies largely share the same business model: attract users so that you can attract advertisers so that you can sell ads. Facebook, for instance, generates over 90 percent of its revenue from ad sales. The value of these ads is completely derived from the people who see them.

That’s where you come in. Facebook is able to make so much money by selling ads because it can guarantee that millions of people will see an ad, and more importantly, that these millions of people will be the right people to see the ad.

Your data, which you hand over to a platform the second you pretend to read the terms and conditions, lets the company learn your tastes and serve more relevant ads to you and others. And more relevant ads fetch higher prices on the ad market. This is how social media platforms leverage you, the user, as their most valuable asset.

It would seem as though this system exploits consumers. Social media companies take ownership of our data, spread it around, profit from it, and we get nothing. Or do we? Let’s take a look at how our data is collected and ultimately used.

Social media platforms track every single action you take. From these actions, they can deduce demographic information like income group, relationship status, political affiliation, and sexual orientation as well as categorical information on what sorts of products and services you’re interested in. They use this data to place you into various groups to which advertisers can choose to show ads.

However, not all relevant information about you can be inferred from what you do on Instagram or Snapchat, so platforms supplement data that they collect themselves with data that they purchase from data brokers. Data brokers collect and purchase data from various sources and categorize you based on this data. Acxiom, one such broker, offers a site ( where people may view the data that it has about them.

I viewed my data and found it to be largely a demonstration of quantity over quality. Acxiom had hundreds of data points for me, ranging from home value to how much I spend online, but many of these were inaccurate (the company believes that I was born in 1951 and am married with two children). Notably, the site offers users the ability to correct the data themselves. How convenient.

Most people wish that their data would remain in their own hands. They want social media companies to protect their privacy and other companies to not sell their data, but they don’t want to pay more money for the services they already use. Good luck.

Regardless of how things should be, you don’t own your data. When you buy soy milk from Whole Foods, they have every right to sell your milk preferences to data brokers. This type of transaction happens all the time, and you can’t prevent it. Your data is everywhere and companies are going to profit off of it no matter what. The question you should be asking yourself is not “how can I protect my privacy,” because you can’t. Instead, ask yourself how you can benefit from this system.

Social media platforms actually offer you the most return on your data by providing a free, high-quality service. They use your data to personalize your experience, showing you the most relevant posts and ads based on what you’re interested in. Your data has value because it lets companies build better products; consumer data indicates what people want and offers clues to predict what people might want in the future.

If you try to reclaim this value by protecting your data, two things will happen. First, your experience on the internet will become generic and you will discover that it is more difficult to find what you’re looking for. Second, with their sources limited, data brokers will sell wildly inaccurate data about you, leading you to be targeted with irrelevant marketing materials.

So let them have your data. The data we’re talking about here isn’t social security numbers or credit cards; those are stored in secure databases and aren’t sold.

There’s nothing scary about companies knowing things about you. It sounds like an invasion of privacy, and on some level it is, but the data involved is largely the kind of stuff someone could figure out just by looking at you in a mall. Your data is going to be shared whether it’s accurate or not, and you can only benefit from this sharing if it’s accurate. So don’t protect your data; it’s far more valuable in the hands of others than it is in yours.

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