Keeping a low profile on the interwebs

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How did Mark Zuckerberg get so rich when Facebook is “free and always will be?”

Quick answer, it isn’t. Long answer:

A subtle misconception about Facebook, various Google services, and most popular media distribution sites is that they exist for you.

In reality, it may be more prudent to say that their product is of you.

Successful social media companies don’t make money selling ads so much as selling data – your data.

If you’ve been online today, at least one of the companies listed above has almost definitely collected personal information from you.

This includes your demographic, your search history, location, IP address and, if possible, your phone number, among many other things.

And those are only four of literally hundreds of trackers virtually all places around the webosphere, all documenting your actions, all using or selling that information for profit.

Maybe you do not buy into the former assumption, maybe you already know almost every keystroke you strike in Google Chrome is being recorded, quantified, categorized and stored in massive private servers.

You recognize that online Goliaths have their own agenda, and, who cares, right? If I’ve got nothing to hide, won’t it ultimately provide a better online experience for me anyway?

Exactly, and, to be fair, the companies need a way to make money for the services they provide.

This article is by no means a condemnation of data mining.

From a privacy perspective, it is an ethically gray area, but what is more concerning is that it is an area most people are uninformed about.

When it comes to topics such as “data,” people generally aren’t interested.

This disinterest is probably why you’ve never heard of companies such as Aggregate Knowledge, Chartbeat, Doubleclick or AppNexus, but that disinterest is not mutual.

Most likely, through their  trackers’ increasingly ubiquitous presence on well-trafficked websites, they have certainly heard about you.

Allow Aggregate Knowledge’s (whose trackers are watching you on most mainstream media sites) own words to paint a picture of what happens to this data:

“A centralized marketing solution, [Aggregate Knowledge] gives you a complete, accurate, real-time portrait of your customer — and enables real-time activation of customer and media intelligence. [Aggregate Knowledge] links customer interactions with authoritative datasets so you can identify, verify and segment customers….”

Or take note of a recent press release from DoubleClick’s (the one who took your phone number, details your Netflix habits, knows how often you’re on weather.com and is owned by Google) website, which elucidates clearly what internet companies think the internet is for:

“Mobile continues to reshape how consumers engage on digital: they are increasingly turning to the nearest device to act on an immediate need in the moment and then seamlessly shifting their attention from screen to screen to complete their journey.

With the path to purchase becoming increasingly fragmented, it’s essential marketers understand how consumers interact with their brand across all devices.”

A couple things to note: Obviously, both excerpts are clearly marketing to marketers, the ones who create the ads we see. Both offer up data “immediately” or in “real-time.”

And both sell information about you in order to expose us to things that statistically interest us and, ideally, help us buy stuff.

The main takeaway though, is that in the eyes of our trusted internet experience curators, our online presence automatically qualifies us as a product.

If all this isn’t cool with you, you can actually go to the Digital Advertising Alliance’s Consumer Choice Page at aboutads.info/choices to fully opt out of interest-based ads, and show your contempt for the 100 plus trackers planted on the page watching you decide. But here’s why I wouldn’t:

Opting out of interest-based advertising, as it’s formally called, won’t necessarily stop advertisements showing up on your websites.

Rather, it will open you up to probably less enticing, potentially more annoying ads, which you are even more statistically unlikely to indulge in anyway.

And while you can flat out remove all ads from your browser by downloading an ad-blocker to superficially detach yourself from the capitalist data-mining scheme, I wouldn’t be so hasty.

Accompanying the rise of ad-blocking technologies is a rise in “sponsored content,” that is, generally biased media bought by companies, which, though hugely more effective and engaging, are.

These controversial and elaborate advertisements are not as easily ousted as traditional ads because they cohabit websites with the general, expected content.

While sponsored content is about as harmless as ads on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, its increasing prevalence in mainstream news sites, including the New York Times, is troublesome to those who question its merit.

We have more control than we think over how our data gets turned into profit. Websites using advertisements generate revenue based on unique page views and click-through rates, among other things.

By selectively using ad-blocking programs, blocking ads on most websites, but whitelisting sites you like, you can use the digital influence of your data as a vote to support your favorite websites.

Or if you want to get really crazy, you can — wait for it — actually click on ads that website provides.

Regardless of whether you’re interested in the ad or not, the power of your click, even a single click, will raise that website’s status significantly.

Seriously, if you like a website and what they do for you, click on one of their ads once in a while. It really only takes a couple of seconds, and you will have done them a good thing. If nothing else, be a conscious participant.

If you run a website, unless you’re a staunch not-for-profit like Wikipedia, sharing viewership with marketers by taking sponsorships and selling ad space play an instrumental role in what you get out of operating.

But how often are you really tempted by banner ads, even good ones?

If your answer is “rarely,” you’re not alone. According to statistics published by Solve Media, an ad provider for CAPTCHAs, you are more likely to survive an airplane crash or become a Navy SEAL than to click on one of their ads.

But far from discouraging marketing companies from serving you ads, if anything, they’ve doubled down on their efforts to increase that infinitesimal statistic.

Zuckerberg is so rich because Facebook (a marketing company) is the king of this.

Having reached its milestone of one billion unique page views last month, and as a function of their sophisticated and unparalleled curation and distribution of ads, Facebook’s viewership, click-rate and, therefore, revenue have never been higher. All thanks to you.