Your One-Track Mind vs. Pavlovian Commerce

Something I have to confront time and again day after day are people who say „I don’t care if some large internet / online media company tracks me (and/or follows what I am interested in)“… and then they ask me „what is the problem with that?“

The main problem with that is that the answer to their question is probably more complex than most people are willing to entertain… – especially if / when they expect the answer in one simple statement / sentence. I have attempted to summarize the issue in the title to this blog post, but the two sides of the equation need to be unpacked in order for people to begin to understand the complexity of the situation.

Let’s start with the „one-track mind“: Either you have one or you don’t. If you do have a one-track mind – for example, you think every problem could be solved with X – then you are probably simply wrong most of the time. If you don’t think that way, then that doesn’t matter: you expressed that you were interested in X once, and so now the tracking spy-corporation thinks you are perhaps open to buying / paying for solution X now. Think of Pavlov’s experiment with dogs: Pavlov once rang a bell when a dog was salivating (actually he did so many times over – and repitition is also a basic tenet used in advertising), and then when he rang the bell again the dog started salivating again. Likewise: You may have bought / paid for solution X while sitting in front of your computer on a thursday afternoon, so since you are sitting in front of your computer on a thursday afternoon again, the online advertising company will offer you solution X again. Or maybe you looked at your smartphone while standing in a particular location. Maybe you typed a word you typed in once before, or maybe the word you typed is similar to another string – did you mean „Sachs“?

Let’s take a rather simple example. Let’s say you type in the word „aspirin“. You may have a headache, you may have some other motivation – in any case, you want to find out something about aspirin. The advertising company is motivated to offer you search results from which they will be able to earn money. This could be ads, or it could be links to pages with ads on them from which the search engine company makes profits. If the search company can make money from the ads shown on 100 different pages, which results should it show in the top 10 results (and which result should be #1)? Of couse it could simply go by how much the ads on each page cost, but perhaps they will only be paid if an ad actually gets clicked on (so-called PPC advertising). Out of many millions of pages related to the topic „aspirin“, the search algorithm must choose 10 results in the aim to give you a result that will earn them some money.

The important thing to note is that the reason why so-called „search engines“ (which behave much like advertising agencies) want to track your online behavior is not because they want to help you find something, but rather because they want you to click on something that will help them to earn more money. These „results“ are not inherently better than other results. They simply result in more revenue for the advertising agency that is „offering“ them to you – and whether that is Google or Facebook or Twitter or any other affiliated websites (such as Youtube or Whatsapp or whatever) doesn’t make one iota of difference.

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