Robert Wright posted an interesting commentary on the New York Times Opinionator last night in which he argued that the arrival of HTML 5, which “will allow sites you visit to know your physical location and will make it easier for them to keep track of your browsing and shopping history,” may be “the salvation of journalism.”
As he explains, “The willingness of advertisers to spend the money that sustains journalists has always depended on having information about the reader.” And modern technology, with its ability to track individual consumer behavior, has made it possible to tailor and target ads towards specific individuals. In Wright’s words,
What if God [or Google or Yahoo], knowing exactly who every Slate reader is, and what kinds of products and services he’s after, shared that information with advertisers? And what if advertisers, rather than buy ads for a particular section of Slate, served ads to the subset of Slate readers — and Salon readers and New York Times readers — who meet criteria like “single guy making more than $100,000 a year who is attracted to S.U.V.’s but is eco-conscious.”
For Wright, the answer is that online journalists would suddenly be flush with cash – and, thus, he finds it ironic that some journalists are concerned about the privacy implications.
Personally, I’m deeply skeptical of Wright’s argument, aside from the privacy implications, because I think that he ignores the core mission of journalists to educate, to broaden our horizons, and to provide us with not just what we want to hear, but with what we need to hear. As I argued in an op-ed in the Baltimore Sun last year, consumer tracking and targeted advertizing technology is dangerous because it has a tendency to create and reinforce insular communities. The article is reprinted below . . .
Segregating Markets — And People
What do people interested in recent conservative attacks on federal appellate Judge Sonia Sotomayor buy? Portable pet carriers, moisturizing liquid hand soap, and flat screen televisions. The fact that I know this is not something I find comforting.
Let me explain. After I wrote a recent op-ed, a friend drew my attention to something at the bottom of the online version of the article. I have grown used to advertisements with my news and links to “most read articles,” but this seemed to raise the stakes. Alongside the helpful recommendation of other articles the newspaper imagined the reader might like based on her decision to read an op-ed on Supreme Court nominations was a list of “paired” products that other readers of the piece had purportedly purchased.
The list ought to be reassuring, I suppose: I would hate to think that readers were only purchasing catamarans and caviar. Still, I am not sure that this is an encouraging development.
True, the various technologies that make product linkage possible are not particularly mysterious or menacing. In a typical scenario, when you visit a Web site, a tracking “cookie” may be placed on your computer. These cookies store data about the places you have visited on the Internet. By collecting such information for millions of people, advertisers know what individuals with an identical browsing history subsequently looked at and can direct you to the same page.
I wonder if it is good to assist individuals in this way – and, more specifically, for newspapers to be involved in this process.
Desire can be manufactured. Hummers can be sold to Manhattan housewives. Water that is by all measures inferior to that flowing out of the tap for free can be bottled and priced at $4 a pop.
Maybe readers of my op-ed do not really need or want a new flat screen TV, but what is the problem with a newspaper encouraging them to buy one? The paper makes a little revenue; Sam’s Club sells a TV; and the reader gets a fun status symbol.
The answer is that although “funneling” might be fairly harmless when it comes to being guided to other albums while shopping for a CD, the same may not be true on the broader scale. What does it mean for society when individuals who read the same articles are, as a result, encouraged to go to the same movies, wear the same clothes, drive the same cars, vacation in the same resorts and eat in the same restaurants?
Creating and reinforcing insular communities is likely to hurt us in the long run. Humans may gravitate toward those most like them, but we should resist the impulse to help the process along.
If I am going to be swayed into buying a product or watching a show, I would like to think that, at least, everyone else is being moved in the same way. In a country still deeply divided along racial, religious, economic, and ideological lines, wouldn’t it be nice if the liberal, black teenager in L.A. was encouraged to read the same book as the conservative, white soccer mom in Nashville?
How will we ever close the gaps, if we are constantly steered to opposite sides of the lunch counter?
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For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Us & Them Politics,” “Without the Filter.” “A Convenient Fiction,” and “The Situation of Swift-Boating.”