SXSW Themes: Is Big Data Charting Your Life for You?

Somewhere out there, an ominous IT cloud is drifting around, amassing your personal data, getting bigger, week by week by week.

That’s what the Big Data naysayers would have you believe. And they’re a little bit right, but it’s not as scary as it sounds.

The Rise of Big Data

The term Big Data refers to the process of acquiring, analyzing and employing data gleaned from people’s retail transactions, web browsing activity, cell phone usage, home address and other life details. Big Data offers marketers a huge opportunity to break apart the usual marketing demographics and, one by one, target individuals.

Retailers, government organizations and big businesses are keeping tabs on you. Loyalty rewards programs tally up every purchase you make and store the information for future use. That information is used to market to you personally, and it’s also used by companies to help them keep up with their competitors, manage stock more accurately and measure their own ROI.

Big Data and the Future of Marketing

As we move away from standard models of data acquisition and into these much more specific models, advertising is going to become selective – for you, for me, for your mother and definitely for your future children. The eerie thing about the selectiveness of the model is that we may never see ads and information that our personal data says we aren’t interested in. Without our knowledge or consent, our data becomes us.

In the future, the online ads you see for clothing, universities, bank accounts, cars, dating sites, foods, restaurants and more will be specifically targeted at you. At what point do your decisions become little more than a result of the conglomerate of advertising and information that’s been hand-picked for you over a course of years – or, in the case of children growing up today, the course of a lifetime?

Consumers, this is nature vs. nurture in the digital age.

Why You Shouldn’t Freak Out

It isn’t nice to think of big businesses dissecting your preferences and trying to sell you what they think your life should look like. It isn’t nice – but it isn’t new.

Billboards in wealthy parts of town don’t advertise gimmicky car lots, while billboards in poorer neighborhoods don’t flash Cartier at drivers. As long as people have interacted with each other, there has been target-specific marketing. Every successful farmer, shop keeper and service provider since the dawn of time has known to sell differently to different people.

In the supermarket your mother used to shop at, there was a specific combination of food options that varied from other neighborhoods. That’s because the supermarket company researched the demographics for that location, and decided your mother’s supermarket would stock Products A, B and C, but not Products X, Y or Z. Big Data is just a much more specific version of that, based off a much greater amount of information.

Big Data is scary because it’s uber-personal. But it’s not new. It’s just changing.

We’ll keep you posted as we watch the changes, including what new tracking methods arise and how the government weighs in on privacy matters. For the time being, relax… and maybe clear your browser’s cookies every once in a while.


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