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Coming to an Advertisement Near You…it’s You!

The government may still be shut down in Washington D.C., but the companies that thrive in the realm of devices that a user can “shut down” remain as busy as ever. Granted, some of these corporations may be rather anxious about the possibility of a breach of the debt ceiling, but in the meantime they are continuing ahead unmolested by a political sphere which is far too busy with infighting to pay close attention to what tech companies are doing. Frankly, many people (particularly in the US) could easily be forgiven for being so transfixed by the goings on in the House of Representatives that they have overlooked recent changes that may alter the way that they are represented in and outside of their own houses.

It’s an electoral shift of sorts, insofar as people have elected to use technology, and have been willing to share their opinions.

In an effort to remind users that, despite the colorful logo and the “don’t be evil” mantra, they can be just as creepy as Facebook – Google has announced that it will now pull user’s reviews (along with information such as picture and name) into advertisements (Facebook already does something similar). As a clever corporation, Google knows better than to call this shift “using you for advertising purposes” and thus is choosing to use the far better terminology of “shared endorsements” which are described in lovely feel-good PR speak by Google (on the page “How Shared Endorsements Work”) thusly:

“To ensure that your recommendations reach the people you care about, Google sometimes displays your reviews, recommendations and other relevant activity throughout its products and services. This sometimes includes shopping contexts, like the Google Play music store, and ads. Your profile name and photo may appear with the recommendation.

For example, if you search for “Italian restaurants,” you might see an ad for a nearby restaurant along with your friend’s favorable review. Or, in Google Play, you might see that another friend has +1’d a new song or album.”

There is a certain discomforting if understandable logic to “shared endorsements:” it assumes that information created by Internet users (such as giving something a +1 or rating it) is created in a public context, and thus it shares this information with those connected to a given user through Google +. Thus, when Google claims that this is about ensuring “your recommendations reach the people you care about” there is some truth to this, even if it would be more accurate to replace “people you care about” with “people you are connected to through social media.” And the examples that are given by Google do not seem wholly unreasonable – if you would have called a friend for a restaurant recommendation now you can just see which places they gave positive reviews. The wisdom of “shared endorsements” is that it claims (this is not an actual quote from Google): “look, you were already sharing all of this information, we’re just making sure that your connections can see it.” It’s as Google claims (this comes from the Terms of Service update of which “Shared Endorsements” is a part):

“We want to give you – and your friends and connections – the most useful information.”

How nice of Google to want to do that. “You” have given Google so much information…and now Google wants to give it back you. As part of an advertisement. What gets hidden in this is that what Google is effectively doing is figuring out another way to monetize people’s informational interactions along with their interpersonal communications. If Google wants to give “you” useful information you can rest assured that they think they will be getting as much if not more information in return.

On one level, what Google gets back is a more appealing way to get advertisers dollars. Advertisers may fear that bombarding people with ads can backfire, but what if those adverts are not filled with a corporate spokesmodel but with the smiling faces of a person’s friends? You might not trust celebrity endorser number 5 about the merits of a given brand of shoes…but your friend Pat’s five star rating is right there. And Pat wouldn’t lie to you, right? Beyond the bonus for advertisers, the other important aspect is that this is simply another case of Google attempting to make ever better use of their trove of Big Data and work ever more towards a model of “predictive search” which can be given a boost by locating an individual’s searches and ratings within the informational context of their friend’s (or social media connection’s) searches and ratings.

While it may be frustrating to have one’s reviews suddenly pulled into advertising, there is a certain aspect to this change of Google’s policies that seems quite unremarkable. When one shares any information with Google – particularly in the form of ratings, or giving something a +1 – one should immediately recognize that this information becomes the possession of Google and they will do with it what they will. To be surprised that Google is making use of this information is too little too late, and to voice privacy concerns at this point is to miss the point that if one is concerned with privacy – frankly – one should not be rating things online or giving them a +1 or a Facebook “like.” Yet, the true laugh line in Google’s policy update, was a punch line put in bold (really, bold in original):

“On Google, you’re in control of what you share.”

This line is wonderful in that it manages to be beautifully true and hilariously false. If you erase the words “On Google” than the statement reveals the uncomfortable truth of “shared endorsements” and of living in a technological society, namely that when it comes to the Internet “you’re in control of what you share.” To put this another way: you can pick whether or not to join a social network, you can choose whether to use Google services/products, you decide whether or not to write a review or hit “+” or “like,” you are in control of what you share; however, once you have shared your information it ceases to truly be yours and your level of control diminishes drastically. The change of Google’s policy – despite the fact that they have a step-by-step guide of how to opt out – demonstrates that “on Google, you’re” not really “in control of what you share.” And the extent to which some illusion of control remains is granted to you by Google. This very policy update is clear proof that Google is in control, for the company gets to make such decisions that unilaterally effect their users, and while Google is here providing an “opt out” it is easy to imagine such protections vanishing.

When one shares information with a massive Internet firm, an individual is acting under delusions if they believe that their information will only be used in the narrow manner in which it was originally intended. Though it may strike a user as crass to have their name suddenly pulled into an advertisement it should not strike a user as surprising. Ultimately “shared endorsements” is simply a reminder that “you’re in control of what you share.”

But once you’ve shared it the only thing you’re in control of is how much you’ll keep sharing in the future. Maybe less would be a good idea.

[here is the link to the step-by-step to opt out]

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About TheLuddbrarian

“I have no illusions that my arguments will convince anyone.” - Ellul librarianshipwreck.wordpress.com @libshipwreck

5 comments on “Coming to an Advertisement Near You…it’s You!

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  5. amadenthusiast
    December 26, 2013

    Wouldn’t it be cool if unfiltered bad reviews were posted along with the good ones? Reviews are intended to be reputation driven, but if those are filtered out then the process fails. BTW, I’m not endorsing that using me as any advert spokesperson is okay with me, but when the choice becomes to use the system or go live in a cave then my response here is an obvious indication of the choice I’ve made.

    We’re smart. We can figure out how to bend this thing the right way…

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This entry was posted on October 14, 2013 by in Privacy, Social Networking, Technology, The Internet, US Politics and tagged , , .

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