Push Media Sucks

What follows is a revisitation of email that I sent to a friend who is one of the few media-types with any kind of a clue. He asked me about a proposal for a web site that included some features for allowing individuals to register their preferences on the site, and take a customized view of the site. The idea would be then that this information would be available to business partners who could make good use of what information had been collected.

Web Sites that Collect User Data

The only alarm that went off in my head while going through the presentation is possible privacy considerations.

  1. Users should know up front and clearly (not in <font size="-400"> tags) who has access to the data that's entered, and specifically what data is accessible. For example, I might be happy to let advertisers have my mailing address, but I might not want them to have my email address. It's conceivable that both data would be in the database, and it's difficult to control who can access which fields on a record-by-record basis.

  2. From a privacy standpoint, the optimal thing to do is have all of the partners provide their information on a site, perhaps in the electronic equivalent of a mall. Let the people who want to poke around do so. Also, by filling out a profile of their interests and that sort of thing, the site can be easily customized to their preferences.

    For example, it might be useful to allow folks to indicate that they're interested in Disney stuff, family-oriented things, and have absolutely no interest in restaurants. In one part of the site, or maybe on a HotWired-style pop-up navigation window, have new stuff that is of interest to that user, based on their preferences from last time.

    The individual consumer data, including name, address, phone number, etc., should never be available to partners, or anyone else. Collective data that would show things like the top interests of the site's registered visitors and that kind of thing could be made available to partners, and wouldn't necessarily infringe on the privacy of the users.

  3. An alternative might be to by default, go with mode #2 above, but then allow individuals, in their preferences, to specifically allow partners access to their registration information. It's important that the default mode here not be set to send-everything-to-me mode.

Danger! Danger Will Robinson!

Now, let me give some real brief background on where I'm coming from with this. Right now, we're in a dangerous period of the Internet's growth. This danger is on a number of fronts, though they're all very closely related.

  1. Loss of privacy
    It wasn't so long ago that two people who wished to have a private conversation would simply be able to walk out of earshot, and discuss whatever they like. With the emergence of the Global Village, more and more conversations that take place do so through other mediums, including the telephone, and more importantly, the Internet.

    For reasons of politics, "business advantages," and others, an increasing number of people have sought to take advantage of the fact that the media through which people converse can be used to find out what they're saying. Anyone who questions this truth should be encouraged to ask Newt Gingrich how private his cellular telephone calls are.

    Loss of personal privacy isn't only a matter of keeping secrets secret, or of minding one's own business. In an electronic world, personal privacy is a matter of personal safety and security. Consider the number of financial institutions that will divulge information about a customer's credit history, account status, and even what sorts of transactions can be accomplished by simply claiming to be the account owner, and providing the correct answers to the questions "mother's maiden name?" and "social security number?" Now consider the fact that such information is currently available in public records. Birth certificates, marriage licenses, and other documents that are available to anyone who wishes to see them. These documents also contain all of the information needed to effectively steal someone's identity long enough to accomplish almost any objective.

    We -- as a society -- have allowed this sort of nonsense to continue for far too long. By simply closing our eyes to the danger of this sort of possibility, we've been able to convince ourselves that it doesn't exist. While it hasn't been terribly convenient to gather such tremendously sensitive data on enough people to make it profitable in the past, the increasingly networked world, powerful search capabilities, and people who know how to use them, make it possible to now gather such information on large numbers of unsuspecting, innocent individuals.

    The more information that is collected on us as individuals, including what email we sent, how much we send, where we send it, how much we post to usenet, what sites we visit, what our preferences are, and every other move we make, the greater danger we place ourselves in.

    And, the fact of the matter is, it isn't anyone else's business where I direct my electrons.

  2. Electronic business types charged with making money with "this Internet thing."
    Many businesses have been interested by the notion of doing business on the Internet. Given the amount of hype that has been made of this in books, magazines, newspapers, and other media, it's almost amazing that there are still companies that aren't on the 'net.

    After setting up their web site, which includes incredibly boring and useless information like corporate history, the annual report, and a product catalog, many have been disappointed by the lack of additional income. Some, despite their best efforts, are simply unable to even get a significant number of "hits" on their web sites.

    As a result, the business managers who approved the expenditures necessary to put the business on the 'net have become charged with making it profitable. At their wit's end, they turn to their business allies, those who make them look good and present their message to the masses: the advertising and PR types.

  3. Media types moving into the neighborhood
    This is an inevitable extension of Danger Number Two. In recent decades, media types have come to understand a great deal about consumers, including their buying habits, their interests, and what it takes to make them buy the products and services of their clients.

    With radio, and then television, the formula is pretty straightforward. The consumer is "tuned in" to a channel or station. To a degree, that consumer is a captive audience. The rise of the remote control has had the largest effect on the way that broadcast ads (especially television) are presented. The audience is now much more able to change the channel if what's being presented doesn't interest it. Ads have become more brief, loud, and fast-paced as a result, hoping to flash enough in front of the consumer to keep him from turning it off before it's able to get started. In any case, the channel is presenting a specific program that is of interest to a specific target audience, so the types of products and services that are of interest to that audience are presented, in a way that is most likely to interest them. (There's a reason why phone sex ads aren't played during Saturday morning cartoons, and a reason why power tools aren't advertised during weekday afternoon soap operas.)

    The bottom line is that the advertiser knows the type of person on the other end of the screen, and is able to push information to that type of person that will have some success in getting a portion of that audience to do the bidding of the advertiser.

    The Internet is a completely new medium. Gone are the days of pushing things on to the consumer. This is interactive media, where the consumer pulls in the information he wants. Now, we can finally have the one-to-one marketing that builds brand identity and loyalty.

    So why does WIRED magazine feature "push" media on a recent cover article? Why does Marimba talk about "tuning in" to "channels"?

    A friend whom I will call "jeh" made a very important point succinctly: "Push media is a failure of the imagination." He's entirely right.

    Charged with making money on the Internet, media types are brought in. Media types can't exercise the same level of control over their audiences as they can in the more "traditional" media such as television and radio. Media types are in danger of losing their credibility as the people who can make the business, the product, or the service known to the world, especially when that world is electronic.

    Enter push media. The media types, to prevent their own exposure, and inability to make money in the "pull" world of the Internet, have retreated to what they know: push.

The tremendous desire to attempt to turn the Internet into a glorified television network is one with a lot of money behind it. It's also one of the most repulsive ideas I've recently encountered, ranking only slightly below the use of the global network for Big Brother to monitor the Proles and all members of the Outer Party. (See 1984.)

This is why I have come to actively reject media as a whole. I don't watch any television, I don't even listen to the radio anymore. I probably get two newspapers per year. Everything I get these days comes from cruising the web -- or having software do it for me and present me with summaries and/or links to things that my software thinks I care about. I used to read the newspaper every day -- several a day, actually. I used to subscribe to more than 30 magazines. I used to watch a little bit of TV, and I used to listen to a lot of radio. But I got so sick of it all, that I now take the posture I do. I used to read the web version of the Wall Street Journal during its trial period, but I killed it after about three days. I don't want that stuff sent to my email box. If I want it, I'll go get it, or I'll have software get it for me and make it available so I can get it locally.

Hopefully I've presented a fairly logical description of my thoughts leading to a very strong recommendation to resist the desire to take the easy way out, to resort to push media. Businesses won't understand it. Partners won't understand it. Other advertisers won't understand it. Even many consumers won't understand it.

But only by taking the road less traveled: making the information available, easy to get, easy to use, and someplace where I can find it when I want it -- if I want it -- will anyone be successful in marketing to me. If I visit a web site once or twice, I don't want stuff from it constantly popping up in my face.

And hopefully, historians will look back on this period as one where society finally figured out how to intelligently provide useful information to consumers rather than shove more stuff that they don't need down their throats. But I fear that unless more people have the courage to stand up and say "this sucks!" historians will instead look upon this period as one of the most tremendously blown opportunities ever, and further evidence that the masses want mediocrity -- and the media aims to please.

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C Matthew Curtin
Last modified: Mon Dec 8 22:47:22 EST 1997