Just over a decade ago, some tech companies, calling themselves “social media” showed up at our collective doors and said they had some really cool stuff to show and could they come in for a cup of tea? So we invited them into our living rooms. For most of us, that’s where our computers were at the time. So in they came. They never left. In fact, once we all started using smartphones, laptops and had WiFi in our houses and data on our mobiles, they came into our bedrooms, kitchens and along for our shopping trips.
Social media platforms have of course, been enabled by the advent of the internet, spurred on by mobile data. We did like what they showed us, because billions of people jumped on. We began to learn, over time, that there was a price to pay. That we, humans, had become the product. Our first inkling that something wasn’t right was, arguably, the revelations of Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. If there was an award for the social media platforms for the most scandals, Facebook would take the prize. We began to realize, we had struck a Faustian bargain.
Marketers got drunk on all this new data too. For the first time, they could show executives, the CFO, that they had quantitative data to prove their value, not qualitative surveys and indirect data. What the tech companies sold them, they eagerly gobbled up. Tech giants fed marketers the steady diet of data like the food industry feeds us salt, fat and sugar.
When it comes to corporate sponsored research, I’m usually a bit skeptical. They have a business objective in mind. But, with a dose of salt, this latest one from VPN provider, NordVPN, while serving their goal, was also quite insightful. They basically asked if people would want to delete themselves from the internet. Perhaps unsurprisingly, most people would want certain information deleted.
As data breaches seem to pile up constantly and leading thinkers like Shoshana Zuboff (book: Surveillance Capitalism), Evgeny Morozov and others, along with news media articles and other academic research show just how much is being collected on us, our distrust is growing. And socioculturally, things are starting to change.
Humans have decided however, that they’re not quite happy with this bargain. They’re starting to push back. Even Gen Z are more skeptical and changing how they too, use technology and social media shows recent research. While the tech giants, Facebook top among them, spend more on lobbying government, so far, they’re not winning. Regulations are coming, it’s just a matter of how diluted they’ll be in America. But the EU, has strict privacy laws, Canada and Nordic countries are catching up and even California, home to Silicon Valley, is adopting stricter privacy laws.
Proponents of Web3 (still a messy, undefined idea) and related technologies like blockchain, are promoting greater privacy, egalitarianism (but they’re getting it wrong) and more personalized control of ones privacy. Apple is making progress on privacy controls, costing Facebook billions in ad revenue. Google is kinda sorta, not really, maybe playing with greater privacy controls. It will do so only when it can ensure its profits and thus shareholder dividends, are protected first.
The Tech Giants are facing some strong headwinds. Consumers are finding they’ve overstayed their welcome in our homes and they’d like the Techtopians to leave now. The brands that tagged along, like the dorkey cousin, will have to find new ways to prove their worth. There are many and it’s not hard.
Web browsers like Opera, Brave, Vivaldi and even Apple’s Safari are blocking ad trackers and more. Tor might be the most popular privacy browser. Others are following. Apple has figured out how to make a lot of money being more privacy focused. Meta and Google could learn some tricks from them. Except, you know, egos get in the way. And laziness.
There are some amazing new products from the internet on the horizon. Some exciting opportunities. The internet, I believe, has brought far more good to humanity than bad. The brands that learn to be less invasive, that spend some time to think about their ethics, they’re the ones that will win in the next evolution of the internet. Privacy and being more human is the next wave of opportunity.