Go to your Promotions tab inside Gmail. If you’re not a Gmail user, just stop by your email and see how many newsletters you’ve gotten in the last few days.
- How many of those did you deliberately subscribe to?
- How many have you opened recently?
Now open Facebook, or Twitter. Who or what do you want to hear from RIGHT NOW, TODAY? Is that what you see?
We Have A Problem
The problem is not just email marketing and it’s not just social media…it’s everything, everywhere, in virtually every aspect of our society. For the purpose of this post, I’ll mostly limit my commentary to tech companies, but just know that it doesn’t stop there.
The Problem Is Consent
Every aspect of our digital lives has become more noisy, more cluttered, and often not on our own terms. Even in the instances where we explicitly opt-in, what we see may be dictated by an algorithm. Even when we willingly and knowingly opt-in, we are leaving ourselves at the mercy of marketers.
- You know that when you visit a website, you can expect to get ads from the company.
- You know that when you run a search on Google, it’s one more data point in their extensive advertising profile about you and your Google News will adjust accordingly.
- You know that when you interact with anything on Facebook or Instagram, the newsfeed will bend in that direction.
- You know that when you give your email for that free PDF, that you will soon find yourself bombarded by an unrelenting barrage of sales emails designed to get you to part with your money.
Good luck with that.
The Problem is Power
To use just about anything online, companies will have consumers sign terms of service. Who really benefits from this?
The thinking is that it is the consumer’s responsibility to read the giant 24-page agreement filled with legalese. And what happens if you, as the customer, disagree with a particular clause? Do you redline it? Send it back and wait for a response? No, it’s: “take it or leave it.” So, because you often need this piece of technology to connect, communicate, transact, or otherwise exist in this society, you accept the terms and move on.
- Perhaps you’ve agreed not to sue
- Perhaps you’ve agreed to forced arbitration in the event of a data breach
- Perhaps you’ve given the company permission to enable your camera or microphone and collect that data
- Perhaps you’ve given the company the right to use your likeness in their ads
- Perhaps you’ve given the company the right to track your location, scan your contacts, track your web browsing history, and to share that data with their partners
Maybe you should’ve retained a lawyer to review these terms prior to using this service? That sounds reasonable, right? That certainly wouldn’t disadvantage any groups over others on the basis of economic status. Buyer beware, baby!
This is why your permission is often not required and if it is, enforcement is prohibitively expensive for the consumer. Do you really have the budget to go toe-to-toe with today’s tech companies, banks, or eCommerce giants?
Now that you’ve agreed…
Your data is now free to be sold to the highest bidder. That’s not an expression, it’s actually sold in an auction for advertisers to reach you. As the bids for your attention increase, the marginal value of YOUR data continues to increase and you don’t see a dime of that. All the while you are paying for some of these services, paying for the internet connection, and blissfully unaware of just how much data is being collected and by whom.
Protection favors corporate interest over consumer interest and yet we’ve been tricked into believing that regulation is a bad word, as if the consumer has too much power over businesses.
The Consumer Revolution
GDPR caused a substantial amount of corporate bitching and moaning, but it was only a tiny step in the direction we need. What we really need is a total flip of control. Consumers should be in complete control of their data including how brands and people can communicate with them.
The Outbound Problem: We Are The Product
As it stands right now, consumers have virtually unfettered control over the frequency and content of their outbound communications, short of being de-platformed or banned. The reason for this is that companies actually want this. The more data you publish voluntarily, the more data there is for them to sort through and monetize. This is because consumers have little control over how their data is used by third parties. More importantly, consumers often have little control over the OTHER data that is being collected about them in the course of their day-to-day life. This includes what sites they visit, their locations, their purchase habits, etc.
In some cases, companies, sites, and apps will give you the option to see what data has been collected about you and give you the option to delete it. What’s not quite clear is whether or not that data has been moved anywhere else, distributed to partners, or is even the complete set of data the company has on you. Even if individual applications offer some sort of controls, there are always other methods to gather that data….always.
Finally, even when we get our hands wrapped around some small aspect of all this data tracking, ownership, usage, and privacy rights…a new technology opens up a new can of worms and we start all over again. The confusion is deliberately inflicted. The goal is to keep you uninformed, resigned, or apathetic.
Why am I so skeptical and pessimistic?
Maybe it’s because no punishment levied against any of these tech companies has amounted to much more than the tiniest slap on the wrist. Facebook has repeatedly been caught lying, breaking the law, or otherwise operating unethically. But it’s not just tech. Look at how bank executives have been punished for their various transgressions and it’s clear that justice is an unlikely outcome.
The Outbound Solution: Enthusiastic Consent
The only people harmed in these aforementioned unbridled acts of greed are the consumers and the only fix is to turn the tables and give the power back to the people, let people share in the spoils that result from the use of their data, and ensure that the punishments for violations are actually deterrents.
The question of “can we afford the fine” should always be no.
While the currently accepted method to date has been opt-out, as in, once the company has collected the data you can delete it, I propose that the new model is opt-in. Any time that a company wants to use your data, it should have to ask you first and wait for your explicit consent. You might think “well, won’t this get annoying?” The answer is “yes…and that’s the point.” Imagine if you saw each and every time that your data was being moved or monetized. Facebook’s 2018 Q4 Revenue was 16.6 BILLION dollars. While they are among the largest data profiteers there are others. So, our data is being collected trafficked and monetized constantly.
While we all have some understanding that what we volunteer to the public is fair game, all of the other data collection, much of it without our knowledge or explicit consent, is something that I think few people would argue is fair game to be monetized.
In my humble opinion, it is unconscionable that these companies generate this kind of wealth off the backs of customers who get nothing (monetary) back in return for being the product. It’s time we own our data and are given some of the profits generated.
We are the majority shareholders of our own data and, dammit, we want our fucking dividends!
In Short: Explicit Consent. Profit-Sharing. Harsh punishment for violations.
The Inbound Problem: At Your Discretion
The other side of this coin is permission-based marketing which should dictate the incoming flow of marketing messages. The market is currently using a bare-bones and simplistic model of permission-based marketing. It goes like this: “you opt-in, and now I can send you anything, at any time, with any frequency, and if you don’t like it, you can opt-out.“
Sure, it works, but we can do better.
The Inbound Solution: Noise Control
The obvious solution to the email marketing, advertising, and content overoad problems, is better noise controls and filters for users.
We should have complete control over the frequency of our incoming marketing and communications. We should also have filtering capabilities to ensure that we aren’t being subjected to unwanted communications by topic or individual.
I’ll give you one example, I call it The Faucet.
Introducing “The Faucet”
The Faucet is my concept to fix email marketing. Imagine an application that is designed to be an intermediary that receives all of your email marketing communications. Each user would get an email address used exclusively for email newsletters. As these newsletters and offers came in, the user could go into the application and search the database by keyword or sender. They could also go in and turn the faucet on and off by choosing which emails they’d to flow through to their inbox by keyword or sender, and over what time period. This would allow the user to turn on a particular newsletter and only let it through when it features a particular keyword and designate a period of time that these rules would remain active.
In theory, this is a simple application and would give all of the power to the recipient, instead of the sender. We can build tools like this everywhere and we have more than enough technical know-how to do it.
So, why haven’t we?
We’re out of balance
Our system is out of balance. We’ve given too much to the market, and we need to rebalance it if we have any hope of finding an ethical and sustainable model of capitalism. While I’m skeptical that such a thing truly exists, steps like what I’ve described would move us in the right direction. We have to make adjustments by asking ourselves important questions and examining our collective values.
- Who should hold more power in our society: companies or people?
- Whose time has more value: laborers or owners?
- To what degree are we comfortable with human suffering in exchange for market growth?
I know my answers to these questions and I’m trying to align my technology usage and consumer behavior with it. But few of us will pass the purity test in this system as we’re often left choosing between several less-than-optimal options, or resigning to participate in systems we may disagree with.
It’s Time For The Consumer Revolution
We deserve the right to live in a world that seeks to eradicate exploitation in all of its forms. So, we should talk about these things more. We should challenge the “way things are.” We should stand up and proudly declare that we want things to be better, and then do something about it.
We’ve only recently had to consider who owns our data. We’ve only recently had to deal with the impact of email marketers and social media marketers. Now is the time for us to have these conversations. Now is the time for us to build the system we want.
Also published on Medium.