Why marketing will be responsible for the death of democracy …

Voters ballot close-up

No, you can’t always get what you want … 

I’ve blathered on for years to anyone who’d listen (and many who wouldn’t) about the value to our democratic process  of  instantaneous communication, the benefits of being able to express our individual opinion rather than have our elected representative express our opinion (as long as it aligns with their own, and their political masters’) current stance.

I’ve been loquacious around my view that it’s extremely rare that I, you, or anyone will actually share a world-view that’s well aligned to whichever mendacious under-achieving power-seeking slimeball appeared less repulsive than their opposition last time we all trooped into a cubicle and (despite this being the 21st Century, “the Digital Age”) placed our stubby pencil cross on a piece of paper.

But, perhaps inevitably, I began to doubt myself. The media, the cognoscenti, the chattering classes were truly surprised by the result of the recent UK referendum on which bunch of untrustworthy political animals should make important decisions for us. And then, our chums in the obese former colony across the sea astounded us all by choosing the more ridiculous of two people for whom the idea of integrity and honesty seem to be irrelevant concepts that don’t apply to them.

And the pollsters, the media, the cognoscenti, the intellectual elite, got it wrong, again!

And I realised where my thinking, (that instant and ubiquitous communication was a good thing for democracy) was going wrong, and would only get worse.

It’s about information.  In order to make informed and inclusive judgements, we need a big-picture view of the world, many opinions, many cultures, broad-brush data, challenge, diversity… and that’s not, increasingly, what our digital world offers.

family-listening-to-radio

When I was a lad there were a few newspapers, the radio, television was in its infancy, there were literally a handful of information sources, sure the papers had editors who chose a broad political line but generally we all worked to a fairly common view of the world, common sources of information, the only filter bubbles being our personal circumstances and prejudices, and they tended to be similar to the other folk in the street.

It’s that filter bubble effect that will hurt us, filters now driven by algorithm. As I read the FT (or, let’s say the Daily Mail for the sake of balance) online, it’s identifying my interests, and presenting the stories relevant to those interests, my news feed is getting increasingly niche.

My Facebook feed is not your Facebook feed, my Twitter feed is not your Twitter feed, I see a different Linked-in than you. Increasingly, as the marketing algorithms identify what I like, I’m likely to get less and less randomness, less surprise, less exposure to other’s views, every interaction with my world of information will become increasingly affirmative that the way I see the world is the way the world is.

We get to see more and more of the stuff that we already agree with, to the exclusion of different opinions.  Is this partly what’s driving intolerance, misunderstanding, prejudice and divide over understanding and caring?

And if that’s true, then our ability to see the world through others eyes, to engage, to understand and empathise with those unlike us will wither and atrophy, division will grow and we genuinely won’t understand why.

Filter bubbles, you get to see what you are used to seeing, or, more and more often, what an algorithm decides is like the things you already like, there’s no value for Amazon in showing you stuff that doesn’t give you that warm comfortable, “oooh I like that” feeling.

Filter bubbles, good for marketeers, bad for a true world-view.  An increasingly narrow set of information delivered uniquely to each of us as the social media algorithms work really hard to make themselves attractive to us, telling us more and more of what we know, delivering diminishing levels of challenge, less randomness, we miss the ambient intelligence of exposure to a whole newspaper, not just the bits we already like.

We’re being spoon-fed our own preferences.

Unhappy Baby Being Fed In High Chair At Meal Time

So, how does anyone get an objective view of the world as we increasingly get an algorithmically-curated information stream designed to make us easy for advertisers to target, not to share, explore or explain how the world might look to a third-generation unemployed chap in Derbyshire or Illinois?

I wish I knew… do you?

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What hope is there for us when even Amazon gets it so very wrong?

You’d think that a business such as Amazon, huge marketing spend, highly skilled, totally focused on driving out all the return it can  from it’s customers (and crucially, their data) would be pretty slick.

IMG_0514Which is why I was surprised to see them making some of the fundamental errors that can move any organisation, instantly, from the customer aware, tailored, informed, targeted, trusted-advisor role and out into the marketing Death Valley of badly constructed, poorly managed, blitzkrieg mailing.

They know a lot about me do Amazon, they know that I buy and read a lot of books! they know which ones! which authors! which genres, which formats I prefer! they know how often I buy stuff! and they’re pretty good at predicting what I might want to buy next! often they’re right.

They also know my name, my address my credit card details, my friends, (the ones I buy stuff for and the ones I recommend stuff to) they know my email. So how is it that they send a generic mail  to my email, but address me as “Dear Amazon.co.uk customer”, and deliver the exciting news that I like “books“.

Really? no kidding! what insight, what a personalised approach.

There’s a lesson for all of us here, I allow them to use my data because I get value from that, if they fail to treat it with intelligence and respect, they’re failing to live up to the deal.

And that’s a relationship killer when we, the customers, have choices, and voices…