Why your personal information, not your attention, is the new currency of the internet
The internet has given us abilities and resources that we wouldn’t have even dreamed of just a few short decades ago. It began as a researching network for scientists to communicate more efficiently, but it would only take a few years for capitalism to take hold and transform the internet from a technological communications network into a hub of social interaction and finally into a medium for commercial advertising. For years, advertisers competed for our attention based on pre-internet models of advertising; make the flashiest ad, attract the most customers. Today, the way we use the internet has changed, and advertisers have had to adapt to keep up. It is no longer enough to have the biggest, brightest advertisement. Online advertisers have turned to alternative ways of penetrating our shorter attention spans and targeting their messages to us. Sometimes in ways that people don’t always agree with.
By the mid nineties, the modern internet was beginning to emerge as a hub of commercial and social interconnection. The world wide web was just being introduced into American households. At the time it was relatively simple and has very few functions compared to the internet we know today. Few people realized the potential of a global communications network of this scale. The internet would ultimately go on to dramatically change every aspect of our lives; the way we communicate, the way we do business, and the way we spend our time and money.
It is a well established fact that where there is money to be made, someone will find it. With the dawn of the internet came a massive untapped market for advertising and the buying and selling of goods and services. It is now possible to reach anyone, anywhere, at any time, and this means more opportunities to grab the attention of potential customers. Before, advertising used to be a physical thing. You had to rent out a bill board, print out stacks of flyers, or take out an ad in the newspaper so people could see your message. Radio advertisements could only go so far, you could describe your product, but people couldn’t see it. Then came television, but you had to prompt viewers to get up from their comfortable couches and call a phone number to order your product. And finally, the internet. Not only could businesses advertise directly to a wider audience, all the viewer had to do was click on the link that would take them right to the website.
In the initial days of the world wide web, internet ads were hugely successful. The first banner ads were introduced by the online magazine HotWired, which prompted nearly 10 percent of all viewers to click through to the advertised site. Not only were internet ads new and flashy but our attention spans were wider and hadn’t yet adjusted to the sensory overload which is the internet. These days we are much more immune to pop-up ads and there are infinitely more online sources competing for out attention. A banner ad is more of a nuisance today compared to two decades ago, when it was a shiny new opportunity flashing in the corner of our screen. Had you REALLY been entered to win a million dollars? Why not click on the ad to find out? Now, after seeing hundreds of the same click-traps, we are better at avoiding them.
So, where are we today? Our attention spans have developed and evolved with the internet. Internet users have become more focused, and the commodity of our attention has become much harder for advertisers to grab. But advertising has evolved just as quickly. As mentioned earlier, where there is money to be made, someone will find it. This brings us to probably the biggest paradigm shift in advertising: algorithms.
The use of algorithms involves compiling huge amounts of data and crunching it all down in order to make advertisements more targeted, efficient, and ultimately profitable. Algorithms take the guessing game out of advertising and turn it over to computers to determine how best to win over our attention. The more advanced the algorithm, the more accurate it can be in diving into your soul. A big company like Facebook can use their algorithms to dive into your soul and find out who you really are based on what you search, what you read, and what you do online. Internet giants such as Facebook, Youtube, and Google, have the ability to learn your interests, your fears, your hopes and desires, and everything else about you.
As the internet has evolved, we have evolved with it. This brave new world of interconnectedness and instant communication has sent us into uncharted digital territory. Advertisers have developed increasingly complex and sometimes invasive methods to get our attention. Computers have access to nearly all of your personal information, whether you like it or not. What does this mean for the future of our privacy? And where will the advertising industry go from here? That is a question only time will tell.