Why you should care
Because technology is progressing to put us back in control of our personal data.
“How does it know I need a new coffee maker?” We’ve all had that uneasy feeling when we log in to Facebook, Twitter or Instagram and notice that somehow all the ads we see are for products we’ve already been looking for. In the best cases, these recommendations can be genuinely helpful. But let’s face it, this usually feels invasive, creepy and uncontrollable.
You’re right to feel this way, but help is on the way: blockchain. That’s right — the technology with the catchy name that everyone’s struggling to define. The bitcoin-fueling tech, which allows people to exchange items of value directly with each other, will put you back in control of your data and reverse the relationship between you and every company you do business with online.
And, while it may seem counterintuitive, a lot of advertising firms — many of whom are my clients — are keen to make this world a reality.
The best way to think of the blockchain is as a new database technology that allows sensitive data to be widely accessible and incredibly secure at the same time. When you store data on a blockchain, it instantly gets copied by everyone else on the system, making it available everywhere. But your data is encrypted, so it’s secure unless you allow other people to access it. Software will allow you to grant access to selective pieces of data, but without letting other parties to whom you’re sending data know who you are, which makes it almost the perfect technology to put you back in control of your data.
When we need to buy something, we’ll grant companies anonymous access to only the minimum amount of data they need to see to recommend a product.
In a blockchain-based internet, we’ll all have our own private data “wallets” that contain all of our personal and preference data, stored on a blockchain. When we need to buy something, we’ll grant companies anonymous access to only the minimum amount of data they need to see to recommend a product.
Today, when you’re surfing Netflix, you log in, and the platform grabs all of the data it has about you. In addition to your Netflix watch history, the company probably has purchase data about you it acquired from your credit card company. And if you’ve ever connected Netflix with Facebook, it has data about what you like on Facebook too. Based on all of those data points, it recommends shows. If you don’t like any of what Netflix has to offer, you might log in to Amazon, Google Play or Apple, all of which repeat the process with their stores of information.
But in the future, you won’t go to them; they’ll come to you. You’ll open the local video app on your computer or TV and tell it you want to watch a show. That app, which has access to your personal data wallet, will grab a limited set of video preferences from your wallet, anonymize this data and reach out on your behalf to Netflix, Amazon, Google, Apple and whomever else you want. Those services will take the data they’re given and, without ever knowing who you are or anything about you other than your basic video preferences, make recommendations based on other people who have similar viewing preferences. The video app will return their recommendations, and you’ll make a choice and pay for what you want.
An AI to Call Our Own
Anonymous hyperpersonalization is just the beginning. Today, companies like Netflix, Amazon, Facebook and Apple have sophisticated machine-learning algorithms that help them get smarter about what you’re most likely to enjoy. And having access to your personal data does make their algorithms better. But it’s becoming easier and cheaper to build apps that incorporate artificial intelligence. Eventually, I think we’ll all have our own personal AIs that have access to our full data wallets. They’ll be able to take the recommendations that companies generate using the limited sets of data we feel comfortable giving them. Using our full data wallets and even incorporating online reviews and other bits of public information from around the web, they can help us make choices without giving our personal information to anyone.
Truly Valuable Content
We’re a few years away from personal AIs becoming a widespread reality, but we’re closer than you might think. Technologies like the Brave browser are already using the blockchain to invert the relationship between users, data collectors and creators. Soon users who browse with Brave will earn Brave Attention Tokens, which can be exchanged, along with anonymized user data, for services from website creators and advertisers. But if a user decides not to trade in these tokens, then the creators and advertisers can’t collect any data about the user.
You might think creators and advertisers would be opposed to this setup because it limits the data they can collect. But they’re not; they’re actually thrilled by the progress. One of the big problems that systems like BAT solve is how creators and marketers measure value. Today, it’s extremely difficult to understand how much value advertising on a website is really delivering to a marketer. And that’s complicated by the fact that every platform has different ways to measure value. As a result, entire ecosystems of companies exist to help marketers and web creators understand if users actually engage with and value content.
By putting the control in the hands of users, blockchain-based technologies like BAT will make it crystal clear when you find something valuable enough to pay for it by proactively exchanging your anonymized data.
Forward-thinking brands like this approach because it simplifies the relationship with their customers. Instead of needing to go through third parties like Apple and Google to understand customers, they’ll be able to interact with them directly.
We’re already seeing innovative companies like Dollar Shave Club and Warby Parker start to market themselves directly to consumers as friendlier, more trustworthy alternatives to brandless retailers trying to compete solely on availability and price.
A Better Future for Advertisers, Creators and Consumers
While the battle for personal data may seem like a minefield now, a better future is on the horizon. It’s a shame that it took breaches of trust like Facebook’s dealings with Cambridge Analytica to bring the problems with the current system to the forefront.
But the good news is that growing consumer concern will only accelerate the move toward a future where we control our own data, and where platforms, products and brands compete to truly serve us best. That’s a world where you can sit back and enjoy the coffee from your brand-new machine.
David Richeson is chief of digital innovation and influence at Marina Maher Communications.