There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch

Recently, a friend told me that he’s so annoyed about the way Youtube works. He understands that as a free platform for users, it needs to generate revenue to sustain itself in the long run, but in some cases, these TVCs are shown not only before each video but now even during the video itself and it is obviously something really distracting for him. So what did he do? He simply logged out of his Youtube account and continued watching as normal. This way, he cannot benefit from the superior features of suggestions or history access, but he seemingly took the burden to watch a video continually rather than getting irritated. His story intrigues me in two aspects, how many of us are truly aware of the costs we need to pay to use these platforms, and even if we are aware of them, how can we react?

We come to use these online products such as emails, SNSs, search engines, video platforms, news, and so on naturally as our desire to be connected and updated in this world. Sometimes it is simply because we realize the useful and amazing features associated with these services that truly transform our ways of working and entertaining in a more effective and less time-consuming fashion. From a business perspective, there is always something that these companies will utilize to generate profits for its continued growth. The answer is clear for many of us, users’ information for advertising purpose. The bigger pools of active users they can build, the more attractive these platforms become for advertisers.

According to IAB, in 2013, the total revenues for Internet advertising reached an all-time high of 42.8 million dollars in the US alone, surpassing other traditional media such as broadcasting, cable TV, newspaper, magazine or radio1. It was also predicted 121 billion US dollars will be accumulated for total online ad spend worldwide this year, 2014, or almost one quarter of the total ad spend2. The promising outlook of online advertising is no doubts thanks to the increasing number of Internet users, which leads to the shift of enterprises’ strategies towards digital marketing. As expected, multiple changes are being made in the programming as well as the interface of sites in order to improve its ability to display ads without interfering users’ browsing experience, but more importantly, to mine users’ data at a more sophisticated level. Information is collected, analyzed, measured and leveraged on to help advertisers reach their prospects with high accuracy, promising to deliver targeted ROIs.

From a user perspective, accessibility and connectedness are enjoyed at the expense of selling their own personal data. They know and they should know before clicking on the “Accept” button to set up an online account, I just wonder how many of us really read that part of “Terms and Conditions” of how our data will be used. For self-conscious users, at this point of realization, they keep looking for “Opt-out” button but maybe to their disappointment, it is non-existent. So what probably can we do? For majority of us, including me, I guess we will continue to use these services. And just like how we accept that our data may be exploited by third parties, we internalize the ads appearing in front of our eyes as a matter of fact, an inseparable experience with our online activities. With more and more online space deployed for advertising, users train themselves to become more tolerant, similarly to how we are now expecting a TVC every 15 minutes of our favorite TV shows. The only difference here is traditional media do not know and basically cannot control viewers’ data, on the contrary, online advertising taps on the supreme capacity of programming algorithms to track customers on everything they do and everywhere they go on the Internet. The convenience of the Internet has outweighed its downsides in ways that users today take it for granted and endure the inconvenience without any questions asked.

My friend’s reaction is maybe just an extreme example of users’ disapproval, I guess for many of us, “ads and too much ads” is still not the serious case right now. But for me, it doesn’t mean these acceptance and tolerance should be abused by tech companies as at the end of the day, providing seamless and positive experience to users is the long-term way to go. On our side, as Internet users, we should get ourself educated and be aware of this phenomenon, for every of our online actions, it will be recorded to serve advertisers’ operations. For now, the question isn’t revolving around whether we know or we do not know, but how receptive we are to personal data usage and to which extent those organizations can make advantage of our info for business purposes.





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