Dave Eggers creates in his novel “The Circle” a fictional Internet company that is a combination of Google, Facebook, Amazon, Twitter and that also expands upon what each does exponentially. The company credo of the Circle is “ALL THAT HAPPENS MUST BE KNOWN. SECRETS ARE LIES, SHARING IS CARING, PRIVACY IS THEFT” (and yes, the usage of all caps is definitely intended for effect).
The Circle’s “TruYou” is a password product that ties together everyone’s online accounts, credit cards and bank accounts making multiple passwords a hassle of the past (an interesting side benefit is curbing abusive behavior online since somebody can’t hide behind an anonymous avatar). Another of the Circle’s fictional products are “SeeChange” cameras that can be worn 24/7 and livestream real time video of the user’s every experience and interaction.
The Circle may have been published in 2013 as science fiction, but sure enough we are seeing similar concepts developing online as technological reality. The digital wallet ApplePay can be coupled with AppleWatch so that the mobile device payment service is disabled unless the watch senses that the correct individual is paying.
The Twitter app Periscope now permits users to simply push a button and point a smart phone camera to livestream video onto the Internet. And with tech giants betting on live-streaming video as the next big thing, how long before its coupled with Google Glass type devices so that people are live streaming their lives 24/7 just like the fictional SeeChange?
But as often occurs with the “next big thing” taking over the world, there inevitably is push back from those that don’t want their corner of the world to be taken over. When Google Glass was put out into the real world for beta testing, there were incidents of people asking wearers to remove them for fear of being recorded, photographed or Googled in real time. And remember the outcry that was heard
when it came to light that Facebook removed all of the positive posts or all of the negative posts from almost 700k users News Feeds to see how it affected their moods?
Despite many becoming more and more comfortable of revealing the details of their lives online via social networks and the posting of photos and video, there’s also an “Anonymity” movement developing. At South By Southwest Interactive 2015, there were multiple discussion panels on the topic including, “Hiding in Plan Site, Anonymizing the Internet”.
Jamie Bartlett, Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at London think tank Demos, sees a second and larger wave of efforts striving for online anonymity (the first was back in the early 1990’s when cyberspace was a smaller place). In a January 2015 article for Aeon Magazine, Bartlett outlines the boom in the use of mainly free software to keep Internet users anonymous. One example is Tor, an anonymous browser that lets people surf the net without giving away their Internet protocol (“IP”) address.
So what does the trend toward online anonymity mean for online marketers? The advent of online marketing/advertising was a boon for marketers as they gained access to a wealth of data to analyze their efforts. In the print advertising era they only had a general idea about the readership of a newspaper or magazine and how they responded to ads (e.g., did a supermarket placing a full page ad with coupons on Friday result in shoppers coming in during the weekend as a result?). But online marketing/advertising provided a plethora of data: age and location demographics; where visitors came from and went to in relation to viewing an ad; time spent looking at it and even “heat maps” of where their attention was focused.
It should be noted at this point that we’re not trying to be Chicken Little and exclaiming, “The sky is falling, the sky is falling” when it comes to the anonymity movement and the future of online marketing. Tech giants like Google have made large and continuing investments in their search and Google Analytics products. Such companies won’t be happy about losing potential returns on those investments and surely are looking at ways to deal with any anonymizing of the Internet.
But in the meantime, there are potential issues that online marketers should be keeping in mind as they spend time and money as they move forward with marketing and advertising efforts. Think about how many of us online marketers use Google Analytics as a tool for determining the who, what, where and when of visitors coming to a webpage via organic search. And as mentioned above, GA also provides valuable information on how a visitor interacts with the page.
If a certain segment of such visitors are becoming “invisible”, more focus may need to be placed on getting them to reveal any information about themselves. For example, considering campaigns directed at certain users prone to invisible surfing to motivate them to voluntarily provide information. Sign ups for newsletters, customer loyalty and reward programs or surveys and discounts that provide benefits for providing information. Of course online marketers already employ such methods, but might they need to be emphasized more and used in contexts heretofore not thought of benefiting from those methods?
Pay Per Click advertising could also become an unintended beneficiary of an anonymizing of the Internet. There’s no doubt that many small businesses, and even some online marketers, currently view PPC as not very effective and even worse, a waste of money. The benefit of PPC when used properly is a different discussion for another time. But in the present context, online marketers might need to consider the possibility of PPC taking on an additional value. Namely, as one of the remaining methods for accurately actually tracking users and measuring return on investment for online advertising.
In Eggers novel, the Circle develops “TruYouth” whereby children are micro chipped from birth as a means to protect them from being abducted. When coupled with the fictional SeeChange cameras, it is a vision of every movement of an individual being digitally tracked and stored in the cloud from birth to death. Yes, it is science fiction.
However, it is also resonates with many that believe that sharing every detail about their online existence may not be a good thing. Whether or not the anonymizing of the Internet becomes widespread is still to be determined. It is definitely a potential trend that online marketers need to keep in mind as they analyze their marketing and advertising efforts going forward.