Hands up – how many of you sat watching Mark Zuckerberg’s questioning in front of the US Congress with a Zuckerberg Facebook Bingo sheet in front of you? Watching for when he says: “We made a mistake” or “I have no intention of resigning”…
The Cambridge Analytica debacle certainly hit a nerve, and it should. People’s personal data should never have been exploited to influence the political system. And critically, Facebook users should never have been able to allow third parties access their friends’ profiles. The fact that it happened, according to the FT, is because ‘Facebook has never implemented safeguards that match the power of the data machine it created’. And that in itself is extremely troubling.
But the danger here is that we overreact and stamp down too hard on the use of online data.
People are quitting Facebook left, right and centre, making their Instagram and Twitter accounts private, and emptying their browser histories. To me this seems like a knee-jerk reaction. Organisations such as Facebook need to put the safeguards in place and, just as importantly, people need to do educate themselves about how the information they share online will be used, so that they can make more informed decisions about what they want to share and where and how and who with.
Here in the UK we have the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (download the podcast here) coming into force next month, which will go some way to protecting our data privacy. Companies will need to ask us how we want to be contacted, and will have to abide by strict regulations in the processing and use of our personal information.
At the same time, and almost on the flip side of the coin, we increasingly want companies to use our information to provide us with online content that is right for us, content that’s tailored to our preferences and useful. What we don’t want to see any more is adverts popping up on our Google searches and news feeds for a water filter we bought online the day before; that’s neither timely nor relevant. What we actually want are recommendations for things we might not have thought of – intelligent and personalised recommendations to enrich our experiences, based on our own online likes, purchases and behaviours.
Remember the days of people phoning in to Radio 1’s New Music Generator with a list of 15 favourite tracks, where the production team suggested new music they might like based on those tracks? The days of people sitting down and doing that research for you are gone – there is just too much data to be sorted, sifted and evaluated without the use of machines.
We are at the stage where it can and must be done using sophisticated algorithms and machine learning – cloud-based artificial intelligence.
So who’s doing it well? Who’s trailblazing their way to the perfect personalised experience? We talk about ‘doing it like Amazon’, but actually, one of their main competitors in the online streaming space is doing it even better…
Netflix is doing great things. We all know that it suggests films and series based on what you’ve been watching: ‘Because you watched X, why don’t you try Y?’ But lately they’ve also begun to use machine learning algorithms to look at the genres you like – and select the artwork you see for a particular title based on your viewing preferences. Netflix cites Good Will Hunting as an example2. If you’ve watched a number of comedies, you may see a picture of a laughing Robin Williams, however if you’ve streamed a number of romantic films, you’re more likely to see a picture of Matt Damon and Minnie Driver leaning in for a kiss. All of this would be impossible to do for the thousands of titles in their catalogue and with a member base of more than 100million accounts without machine learning.
It’s time that the other sectors began to follow suit – banking, retail, travel and leisure – all of these have the possibility to use our information effectively to offer us a personalised experience. And this experience needs to extend across all their channels from in store to online to mobile.
None of this is rocket science, it’s a simple matter of digital marketing. At the end of the day Cambridge Analytica is little more than advertising agency that essentially amplified people’s social media echo chambers using their own personal information. How they did it was underhand, and they should be held accountable. But it was also just a matter of simple personalised online marketing – something that not many organisations are doing at present, and that when done correctly, legally and ethically we can all benefit from.