ATFMB – Big Brother

On March 14, 2013, in ATFMB, by Patrick Hester

Welcome (back) to All Things From My Brain.

Big Brother.

1984_coverBorn of Orwell’s 1984, the term ‘Big Brother is watching you’ has become part of our culture.  For some, it conjures images of tin-foil hat wearing conspiracy theorists hunkered down in cold-war era bomb shelters scribbling paranoid ramblings in a seemingly endless supply of notebooks.  I use it today to illustrate a point we’ll discuss today along two paths of thought.

First up, we are closer to Orwell’s vision of the future than most people realize or like to admit.  No, I don’t intend to convert the super-secret Functional Nerds command center – aka ‘my basement office’, into a bomb shelter.  Nor do I intend to start sporting tin-foil hats or stop carrying $20 bills.  But there are a lot of people out there who don’t realize how much of their lives are being tracked, or by who.

Marketers make up a huge portion of the folks who are interested in what you are doing.  They like to collect data about your buying habits, the restaurants you frequent, the books you read, the car you drive, so on and etc.  Ever been in a store and have the cashier ask for your zipcode?  Or your phone number?  I’ve even had them ask me for my email address, all in an attempt to gather data.

Data, you see, is powerful.  People pay a lot of money for data, especially when it impacts their bottom line.  Why ask for your zipcode?  Multiple reasons; it tells them which areas are providing consumers, and sometimes they can tie that back to marketing they’ve done.  An insert into the local paper might have spurred traffic to the store.  Or it may have kept traffic from coming in, another important metric they need to analyze.  Television ads also play a part.  Networks sell ad time, so do regional markets and local markets.  Ever been watching a show, have a commercial come up for some local store or event, and when that commercial is over, see the tail end of some other commercial appear?  That’s the local market selling ad time and interjecting it over the regional or network feed.

Screen shot 2013-03-09 at 8.14.12 PMTo go further, and perhaps to better illustrate how close we are to Orwell’s future, everything you do on a computer has the potential to be tracked by someone.  If you work for a place that has an IT dept, they have setup a network and a firewall and a slew of other tools to help them maintain the network’s integrity and security.  It also allows them to see all activity on that network.  Have a username and login?  They can (usually) click a couple things and filter only your activity; what websites have you visited, what are the logins you used (including passwords), what emails have you sent and to whom.  It can be a little scary when you think about it.  A lot of places have you sign something, maybe a ToS or a disclaimer, that states something along the lines of how you, as a user, won’t install anything on the computers, won’t abuse the Internet or click on things you shouldn’t, and, the biggies:

  • All Internet data that is composed, transmitted and/or received by (company’s) computer systems is considered to belong to (company) and is recognized as part of its official data. It is therefore subject to disclosure for legal reasons or to other appropriate third parties
  • The equipment, services and technology used to access the Internet are the property of (company) and the company reserves the right to monitor Internet traffic and monitor and access data that is composed, sent or received through its online connections
  • Emails sent via the company email system should not contain content that is deemed to be offensive. This includes, though is not restricted to, the use of vulgar or harassing language/images

This is why I never login to my personal email on a company network.  I also don’t access any company provided WiFi with my smart phone or laptop.  It’s not paranoia, it’s just good common sense.  Why open that door?

Gmail_logoOutside of work, do you use a search engine?  Google?  Yahoo?  Bing?  These services, including the free email accounts they offer, track everything you do in an attempt to ‘provide the user with a customized Internet experience tailored to the users needs, wants and interests’.  In other words, the things you look at via your browser, impacts the results you will see when searching for things on Google.  Or the content of the emails you send and receive via your free email service, can also shape your Internet experience.  Same with social media.

Ever been searching the net for something, maybe a new car, and realize you are seeing a lot of car ads there and other places, like Facebook?  That’s because what you are doing is being tracked, disseminated and shared between services who pay for the data – like Facebook.  Most of the time, the data isn’t tied to your name, per se, but to a cookie or something similar inside your browser.  That cookie feeds a database and that database is parsed, analyzed, cataloged and even sold or shared with ‘interested third parties’.

So.  Freaking out yet?

Don’t.  That’s not why I’m telling you all of this.  I do want you to understand, though, so you can make intelligent decisions about what you do, and don’t, share – even when you’re not thinking what you’re doing is being tracked.

With so many opportunities to capture data about users, I am surprised there hasn’t been more of an overhaul of the ancient and outdated Nielsen Ratings system.

From Wikipedia:

Nielsen ratings are the audience measurement systems developed by the Nielsen Company, in an effort to determine the audience size and composition of television programming in the United States. Nielsen Media Research was founded by Arthur Nielsen, who was a market analyst whose career had begun in the 1920s with brand advertising analysis and expanded into radio market analysis during the 1930s, culminating in Nielsen ratings of radio programming, which was meant to provide statistics as to the markets of radio shows. In 1950, Nielsen moved to television, developing a ratings system using the methods he and his company had developed for radio. That method has since become the primary source of audience measurement information in the television industry around the world.

tvI am interested in this because, as a fan of genre television, I see a lot of heartbreaks out there when shows are canceled before they really take off.  Some few linger on by a bare thread but are eventually cut.  But for the most part, genre television is relegated to a small niche with a few shining stars year-to-year.  For about a decade, that niche was syndication and a slew of shows flourished, but the explosion of basic cable pretty much slaughtered first-run syndication and an attempt to revive it (using Legend of the Seeker as a forerunner) failed miserably.

In the 90’s, I had the opportunity to see the Nielsen process first hand.  My cousin was approached to do a one-off for Nielsen.  This was a diary of their watching habits for a 2-week period.  The problem was, they didn’t watch much television at all.  It was frustrating for me because Nielsen targeted a family who didn’t watch tv instead of me, who watched way too much (and still does).  Since they weren’t really tv watching people, they were never taken deeper into the process to become a ‘Nielsen family’.

Also frustrating to me is when I talk to friends who watch the same shows I watch, only to see those shows canceled for poor ratings.  I know people are watching these shows, yet the ratings just aren’t there.  The Nielsen system, to me, is archaic given the level of tracking available today.  How many people use some sort of pay-tv model, either cable or satellite?  Each one carries with it a box or receiver of some sort and that receiver is (most likely):

  • Connected to the Internet (do you stream movies?)
  • Sending data back to the carrier (over the Internet or via the same line feeding you content)
  • Tracking trends including what you watch, and don’t watch
  • If you have a DVR, it might even be tracking what commercials you skip

Why not use that data to determine ratings?

dollarTurns out, there are a lot of things ratings impact, including what a network can charge for advertising.  And advertisers want ‘live’ numbers – or people who are watching the show (and its commercials) when it originally airs.  Not via DVR’s or online.

To me, that’s crazy.  How many shows would have been saved had the criteria for what is, or isn’t a hit, were expanded to include all the ways we watch television – not just when it airs ‘live’.

I suppose there is a downside to opening this door.  So much of what we do is gathered, sorted, disseminated and used to offer us ‘customized web experiences’, feeding us certain ads or content – look at the recent Facebook announcement about presenting us with ‘personalized news feeds’.  Never seeing news that isn’t of interest to you – or perhaps a better way of looking at it would be, never seeing news outside our comfort zone.  The news isn’t the news if it’s been filtered and sanitized long before it ever shows up in our feeds, right?  Imagine if your television did the same thing.  Because you watch certain shows, everything else is masked and you only see related content…

Talk about Orwellian Big Brother.

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One Response to ATFMB – Big Brother

  1. Ganymeder says:

    Interesting post! The book I’m currently reading is dealing with a lot of these same issues . And I agree about the ratings system, I mean, even YouTube has ads now.

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