Today a wide range of online services offer their product free of charge in return for tracking users’ activities in order to profile them for the purposes of serving them advertisements. This bargain anchors a wide range of commercial services on the web, from social media platforms to search engines to web-based email clients.
The following scenario attempted to unpack Americans’ attitudes about this bargain:
A new social media platform is being used by your former high school to help manage communications about a class reunion. You can find out the basic information about the reunion over email, but your participation on the social media site would reconnect you with old friends and allow you to communicate more easily with those who are attending. If you choose to participate, you will be creating a profile using your real name and sharing a photo of yourself. Your access to the service is free, but your activity on the site would be used by the site to deliver advertisements it hopes will be appealing to you.
By a 51% to 33% margin, Americans generally do not find this bargain acceptable. The most striking difference in views on this question pertains to age: Some 40% of those under age 50 say this deal would be acceptable, compared with only 24% of those ages 50 and above.
Notably, some of the detailed responses to this question – especially among those who do not currently use social media – suggest a general dislike of social media and the information that people share on those platforms. In other words, there is a possibility that in answering this question, people’s general aversion to the whole idea of social media colored their views of the “bargain” being presented in the scenario.
Those who were willing to consider this tradeoff often described their outer permissible boundary for such a deal. Some of these “it depends” respondents also noted that their preference would be to use an existing social media site for the task at hand, rather than a new one.
I don’t see this as a gross invasion of privacy, all the information that would be gathered about me is certainly already available online somewhere else. I just wouldn’t care enough to create another internet profile.
“It depends on how the ads are delivered to me.”
“Acceptable until you use my likeness or information in an advertisement. That I would never agree to.”
“What other information about me was required? If only name and picture, then OK.”
“I would only want to see advertising in that website, not in my personal email.”
“If most of the platform would be items of high interest to me, I would be willing to ‘give up’ a little of myself to enjoy the parts I am interested in.”
“Name is OK but no photo, and I would not like to receive advertisements.”
“If it is a new service I would not join, I would join a group on a platform which I already use.”
“I would not want the site delivering to companies I did not want to be bothered with.”
“It would depend on how secure my information is, and if my data would be sold or provided to another party.”
“I don’t see this as a gross invasion of privacy, all the information that would be gathered about me is certainly already available online somewhere else. I just wouldn’t care enough to create another internet profile.”
“As long as the amount of email wasn’t overwhelming.”
“It would depend on if I could easily delete this account if I didn’t like how many ads I received.”
This was the scenario that elicited the greatest number of comments about the ubiquity of ads online and the annoyance they cause:
“If I have the option to suppress my email address or turn off advertisements, then I would join the site.”
“I hate receiving advertisements on the internet from people and companies that do not interest me. It creates so much spam.”
“Sounds like what Facebook currently does – and the ads are intrusive and non-relevant. [It] takes away from purposes of joining site to begin with.”
Those who viewed this scenario as unacceptable cited a variety of reasons – often starting with their concerns about being profiled based on their personal connections and interests and having marketing campaigns tailored to those profiles:
Do not want to view excessive ads and do not want to create more profiles.
“I do not use social media now because of this. [It is] marketing I do not like, and [I] do not participate anywhere this is used.”
“Although I understand this scenario is already standard practice, it uses information collected about me in a manner not for my benefit, without my consent. It would affect how I use the reunion site or whether I even join the site at all.”
“Do not want to view excessive ads and do not want to create more profiles.”
“Advertised as ‘free,’ but it isn’t. I pay, but with my attention span rather than a monetary fee. Too costly, and based on a lie.”
“I wouldn’t use it or I might make one post on the site about contacting me a different way so those who want to connect could in the ways I am willing to use. Then delete my account. I put as little personal information on social media sites as possible. I just don’t like sharing.”
For some people, the prospect of another social media platform itself was another turn off. Some expressed worry about posting information about themselves on such a semi-public platform:
I would feel like I am being put on display.
“Not a big fan of social media.”
“I don’t use social media, I don’t like that anyone can graze, or as some of the girls call it ‘creep,’ which is to look just because you are there.”
“I dislike social media. [There are] too many ways for too many people to learn things about me.”
“I would feel like I am being put on display.”
“Not that attached to my high school, and can communicate with those I want through other means.”
“WE CAN FIND OUR WAY EASILY TO COMMUNICATE WITH OUR OLD FRIENDS AND HAVE A CLASS REUNION WITHOUT THE NEED OF A SOCIAL MEDIA PLATFORM. WHY BOTHER TO EXPOSE OURSELVES TO THE AD COMPANY.”
“I have enough social media sites to manage. I’d rather they use Facebook. The privacy settings are similar to what’s described and those are fine by me. But I don’t want to start using another site.”
“I’ll get the info at the reunion anyway. Then I can choose who I want to contact.”
Some of those who balked at this arrangement felt that the supposed “benefit” of reconnecting with former classmates was not terribly enticing in the first place:
“I don’t care enough about high school to go through these steps.”
“I have no desire to keep in contact with people from high school.”
“I have no interest in seeing my classmates ever again.”
And one person felt this arrangement would defeat the whole purpose of the reunion – the delight and surprise of catching up with old friends.
“I would rather wait until the reunion to see friends and teachers. Like it has always been before email. Or it would take the fun out of it.”