Companies Are Finding Funny Ways to Use Your Personal Data, But Who’s Actually Laughing?

So much of our modern lives are quantified and qualified by our online behaviour: what we do, what we interact with and take in—everything accumulates and becomes a new type of currency: data. Our personal data is fodder for companies looking to better understand a customer base. With ever more choice aimed at catering to every individual taste, our data is something of a lifeline for companies attempting to understand exceedingly unpredictable behaviour.

Unsavoury Displays Of Information

Even so, while most understand their every movement online to be digital gold for marketing teams, there has been a push towards intensified data sharing that have customers scratching their heads. Even though this is the way things are now, should companies be better at limiting the amount of data they share? Last week, in the lead-up to the 2018 Winter Olympics, millennial dating app Tinder leaned into a PR stunt where they revealed just how many athletes at the games were using Tinder while staying at the infamous Olympic village. The statistics noted a 1,850% increase in ‘passporting’ to the Olympic village, a Tinder term for users who change their locations while travelling. Of that percentage, the United States, Sweden and the United Kingdom were among the top three countries to do so. An Instagram account even popped up with screenshots of all Olympian tinder profiles, though it seems that those photos have since been taken down.

Tinder is far from the first company to use data as a promotional stunt. But the move makes a point of highlighting just how widely accepted the loss of private data has become. When we approve a ‘Terms of Agreement’ page (often without reading much or any of it) or post our private content on platforms run by major companies, we are explicitly giving consent for them to use our content and data as they wish. But this new era of personal-data-as-public-stunt hints that there may be other instances in which our data is being used with our passive consent

Understanding “Free” Services

Over the last couple of months, Londoners have begun to notice the disappearance of iconic-if-outdated ruby red phone booths; in their place, internet-connected “Link” kiosks, the same as those which have flooded New York throughout the last couple of years. The kiosks provide free wifi and phone charging, and even free calls if you’re willing to shout into the speaker system on the screens’ edges, which a reported 86,000 callers have already done in the last three months alone.

The kiosks go a long way towards treating the internet as a public utility, as crucial as water and electricity. Yet many are having an ‘allergic reaction’ to what they view as a city-wide infringement on personal data. Three companies are involved in those kiosks: Primesight, Intersection and Sidewalk Labs. The ways in which these kiosks have begun littering city corners, making their usage an option but their presence enforced, hints at a new kind of future in which personal data is always on the fringe of being negotiated into the grasp of a major company.

Private Joke

Other companies have staked their claim in this new approach by using personal data less as a stunt and more as an advertising concept. Spotify used user data in 2016 and 2017 when it flooded city streets and subway tunnels with colourful posters that used individual streaming numbers as an eye-catching tactic. “Dear person who played Sorry 42 times on Valentine’s Day: What did you do?” read one from late 2016. Another in 2017 used hyper-targeted data, like the music habits of medical professionals, as part of their advertising campaign. And Netflix managed to direct a hefty number of viewers over to their film The Christmas Prince by tweeting out a bizarre statistic that 53 people had watched the poorly reviewed holiday film for 18 days in a row.

Many of these are examples of data being used in creative ways. Instead of selling users down the river to private companies to use that data to produce more directly targeted marketing, these companies are attempting to reinvent the idea of privacy as a shared experience: “your data isn’t yours or ours”, they seem to be saying, “they’re everybody’s.” Even with that reconfiguration, the result is still uniquely troubling. By making light of user data, and turning it into a new advertising framework, mined for comedy as much as information, the punchline might eventually be a little too clear to customers: your privacy is a joke, so why not be in on it?