How do companies use our social data?

 Humans are naturally social creatures. We simply love to chat, interact and share with other people. And we’ve had ample opportunity to witness these interactions change and evolve in an incredibly short amount of time. And as we changed, so did the industry surrounding us.

Where did it all start?
Just a few decades ago, the people you knew were essentially limited only to your direct geographical location, maybe with the exception of “pen pals” and eventually phones. However, the inception of social media has almost completely changed the nature of our social circles. Through an arc, which took us from the formative years of social media (Tom from MySpace, anyone?), we’ve reached a point in our lives where 2.96 billion (out of the 7.53 people alive) have a social media presence. Odds are, that you have one such app running on your phone’s background right now!

It comes as no surprise that companies were quick to notice these tendencies and began to look for opportunities to leverage our online activity. Do you want to know what data you are surrendering through your everyday activities, why it is collected and how it is used? The answers lie below.

How do you define a social app?
First, it is important to clear one thing up. The blanket term “social app” doesn’t only relate to social media apps like Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn. A social app can be any application that has some elements of social interaction among its user base. These elements don’t necessarily have to be as deep as the networking and media sharing options the aforementioned apps offer. Even the most basic online leaderboard is enough to define something as a “social app”.

What data is collected?
This may seem like a self-explanatory question, but in truth, that’s not the case at all. Alongside the most obvious data points, like your name, age, gender, date of birth, etc. there’s additional information you might not expect to be gathered as well. For example, every time you log into the app of your choice, it’s noted at what time you logged in and how long you stayed online for. But that’s not all that companies keep an eye out for. They are also interested in what kind of content engages you the most and which mechanics you like to spend your time on the most.

What is that data used for?
The potential use-cases for our data are highly variable, but many of them could be fit under the blanket of “personalisation”. Companies have learned that the marketing practices of “ye olden days” are long past and had to adapt to this new landscape we live in. It’s become ineffective to cast a single wide net and hope to catch as broad a spectrum of customers as possible. Instead, the experience offered to you is heavily tailored to your life, interests and preferences. Or they should be, in theory, anyway (more on that later).

The example you are probably most familiar with would be personalised ads and content. Sites like Facebook and Instagram enable advertisers to target the people who have the highest odds of being interested in a given product or service. That’s where we get the term “targeted ads” from.

Speaking of odds, personalisation is a big driver for the social gaming market as well. Regardless if you are crushing candy, flinging red birds at some mischievous pigs, or shooting your way to that “Winner, Winner, Chicken Dinner”, companies have found ways to capitalize on your activity. This is especially true for social casino apps, in which you play casino games for free, with the option to purchase virtual chips if you run out. So, you can spend a lot of money in them, just like you can in real-money mobile casinos, but the difference is that you can never win anything of real value. But that’s just one example. 

Overall, social apps track what, when, where, how and with who you play and employ tactics to shape your activity to their liking. They do this through special offers, encouraging competitive play on a global and personal level via leaderboards or recommending you apps, games and features you may like or be susceptible to. Such mechanics are referred to asgamificationand are used across the board, all the way from free-to-play games to language learning apps and fitness apps.

What does all this mean for you?
Not only do companies use your social data, but they also use the data from your search history and most insidiously of all, your “offline data”. This information can range from where you live, what brick and mortar shops you frequent, whether or not you have a family and children or even if you suffer from some medical condition.

There’s a number of issues with this practice. The main one being the fact that you most likely never gave your consent to such “data mining”. But the rabbit hole doesn’t end there. All of your collected data is compiled and used to create a profile on your person. This profile is then a) shared by partner companies, or b) sold by data brokers to other companies to make a profit off of you. And all of this happens without you ever even being aware of it! Perhaps, most damning of all is the fact that these profiles are oftentimes completely wrong, as documented time and time again.

A particularly harrowing tale regarding the use of personalised data appeared in 2018 in the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica story, where the gathered and (potentially illegally) obtained data was used in an attempt to influence the 2016 USA presidential election.

But there’s always a flip side. The simple truth is that people enjoy the convenience of having things personalised for them. Having the things you like to see and do served on a silver platter is a good experience. But it comes at a price. Thus, the question is “Just how much of my privacy am I willing to sacrifice for a better online experience?”.

A glimmer of hope for the future?
There’s no 100% full-proof way to completely protect yourself, but there are precautions you can take. Recently, Facebook launched a feature that allows you to limit their use of your data. Additionally, one of these aggregate companies launched the site aboutthedata.com where you are able to see what information these companies have on you. Unfortunately, the industry continues to be opaque at best and we can only hope to see more transparency in the future.

Congratulations on making it all the way to the end dear reader. Now you know what trail of breadcrumbs you leave behind you while online, how they can be used and what you can do to combat these tactics.

So next time that suspiciously accurate ad pops up on your feed or you get an awfully enticing offer from one of your apps, you’ll know exactly what’s going on behind the scenes.

The Yucatan Times
Yucatech



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