By Laure X Cast
It seems that no piece of information is too private or personal to be surveilled, monetized, and aggregated into a 360-degree view of your life. The end result of all of this is that you are no longer the customer, you’re the product. —Tim Cook, Apple CEO
Connection is everything. The more we learn about how our minds and cultures evolved, the more we know that feeling a sense of belonging and connection drives us. Relationships are essential to our mental and even physical health. In our modern world, where we live apart and have different schedules than our loved ones, we need technology to support our connection with each other, and free access makes that connection available to everyone. But free access shouldn’t require sacrificing control over our privacy or our well-being.
As a researcher for Marco Polo, I talk to our users frequently, and I’ve learned that access to free technology matters deeply to them. But some free services come with a hidden price tag: they collect your personal data and use it to sell advertising.
Today, if you use major social media platforms, you are trading your identity, who you know, where you go, what you talk about, and even what’s going on with your health. What’s more, you’re not just sharing your own data, you’re sharing the data of everyone you interact with, even if they aren’t using the product themselves and getting any benefit. You are teaching technology how to affect, alter, and even control your behavior, in service to advertisers or the tech platforms themselves. As algorithm-driven technology becomes more sophisticated, we become like the proverbial frogs in a pot, not noticing the bubbles forming around us.
Find out what is shared with advertisers on your Facebook “Your ad preferences” page.
While some may have the privilege to feel that there are few implications when sharing their data (the “I have nothing to hide” justification), it would be naïve to ignore the influence technology can wield when it’s driven by a deep understanding of our behavior, appearance, relationships, and even our thoughts and beliefs.
Is it possible people don’t even know there’s a problem? In 2018, the Pew Research Center found that 74% of Facebook users said they did not know that a list of their traits and interests was available to advertisers on the platform, even though 88% of those surveyed were able to see that the platform did share such information when they were prompted how to find it. (You can find out what is shared with advertisers on your “Your ad preferences” page.)
Apps or media who make money on advertising are never satisfied with “enough” of your attention. They will always fight for more. —Tristan Harris, Center for Humane Technology
A business model in which pleasing advertisers is the primary consideration can never lead to healthy choices for consumers. As a venture-backed company, we had the opportunity to experiment and develop a successful app beloved by millions before deciding how we’d make money. As we grew, we, like many others, saw what happens when social technology is fueled by advertising dollars – massive data surveillance, optimizing for addictive features to drive “engagement” metrics, and generally an emerging environment built on a denial of responsibility.
The Failure of Free
In 2009, Wired magazine editor Chris Anderson published “Free: The Future of a Radical Price,” a breathless celebration of the wonderful future we’d attain with products we didn’t have to pay for, since all the costs of the services would magically be covered by monetizing our data. It all sounded so wonderful and “Post-Scarcity!”
Twelve years later, we have learned that this utopian future has become a little more dystopian. Services are now designed to keep you engaged at any cost to learn more and more about you, your relationships, your spending habits, and your health, so that you can be impelled to spend more time viewing ads or creating more data. Technology should be something that serves us rather than the other way around, but that ideal doesn’t always feel reflected in the profit-at-the-expense-of-people approach of big tech.
But when we took a different approach to how we’d support our service, by offering a subscription that paywalled some popular features, a number of people, including some of our users, said, “Why don’t you just run ads?” or “I’d rather see ads than pay for premium features.”
We humans love “free.” The behavioral economist Dan Ariely’s book Predictably Irrational explores many ways our “misguided” thinking applies when it comes to the concept of getting something for nothing, even when it’s clearly against our interests.
There’s a perception among at least some people that it’s possible to have a “free” social network run on ads that nevertheless doesn’t fall prey to the kind of toxic design patterns we’ve seen employed by big tech. I don’t think that’s true, and it’s worth considering why not.
The Real Cost
Every venture-backed startup is looking for a profitable business model. Investors are looking for a big return. If advertising is the model, investors and shareholders will never be satisfied by a company that can sell only “basic” ads (that don’t track you or rely on data about you). Personalized ads are more effective. Advertisers are not willing to pay much for ads that aren’t personalized and targeted, especially when they know there’s personal information available to exploit. Today, the major advertising machines are Facebook and Google, where advertisers can get all kinds of information. A service that doesn’t tell them who saw the ads and doesn’t let them target ads to a precise group of people has limited returns comparatively.
In 2021, Pew found that 64% of Americans say social media have a mostly negative effect on the way things are going in the U.S. today. That’s partly because algorithms designed to keep our attention to sell the more targeted ads also feed us more divisive and emotionally activating content.
At Marco Polo, we choose to collect very little data about our users. We do not listen in, look at their messages (Polos), or run AI programs that recognize faces or other identifiable visual information. We don’t use AI or algorithms to control their experience or what they see. We don’t exploit their relationships for our profit. Our service is used by people who expect a high level of trustworthiness because they are having private conversations with the people most important to them.
It turns out Marco Polo was ahead of the curve. If you have an iPhone, you’ve likely seen one of the pop-ups that have appeared lately asking for your permission to be tracked. You won’t see something similar in Marco Polo because we don’t have ads and don’t engage in surveillance.
Authenticity > Attention
Perhaps even more importantly, we designed Marco Polo to be intentional, not attentional. We don’t employ feeds, algorithms, or tricks to keep people on the app for longer than they wish. We let people talk for as long as they choose and watch messages when it’s convenient for them. Advertising leads to an entire system where eyeballs are what’s valuable, and what you want matters less than what the companies paying for your attention care about.
As one person said in our recent user survey, “Marco Polo seems to be the least tainted of all the social media. I have fun and communicate with my friends. I never feel worn out from overuse.” Another added, “There are no ads. There aren’t gimmicks. It’s just a great way to connect with family and friends without all the toxic parts of social media (influencers, toxic politics, ads, etc.).”
Some might argue that advertising isn’t “bad” inherently, and yet there’s evidence that seeing more advertising does have an impact on your happiness. You may think “seeing an occasional ad is no big deal,” but the truth is that Americans are estimated to see 6,000-10,000 ads in a single day on average, many of which are online. And advertisers aren’t excited by ads that are easy to ignore.
Risk and Reward
Without ads, we needed a more direct way to cover all our costs, which in the business of software development, video communications, and storage, are considerable.
We didn’t want to limit Marco Polo only to people who could pay, so we made a risky bet. If we offered a subscription that included some of the features most valued by our loyal fans, as well as adding new features they had requested, we would be able to ensure that everyone could have the option to use our basic product for free.
So far, that bet has paid off. While most of the millions of people in the Marco Polo community use the free version, our subscribers allow us to cover our costs and consider how to serve all our customers in even better ways in the future.
We’re proud that we proved this model works. It shows that it’s possible to have a free app that doesn’t turn every person who uses it into a target. We hope our example inspires developers and entrepreneurs making all kinds of technology to see they don’t have to sell user data or design for addiction to offer compelling and even free apps that increase connection and bring us together.
Time for Change
I’m not suggesting that everyone can just stop using ad-based or data-mining technology. It’s ubiquitous and often even required for work or to communicate with loved ones who love aspects of social media, despite concerns about well-being or digital surveillance. Tech reporter Kashmir Hill produced a great series that illustrates just how near-impossible total avoidance of data-mining technology can be. Until bigger changes are made, we depend on these services.
But we do have options. We can educate ourselves and begin to take baby steps away from tracking, attention-hogging tech, especially when it comes to supporting relationships.
Mobile technology is here to stay, along with all the wonders it brings. Yet it is time for us to consider how it may get in the way of other things we hold dear – and how once we recognize this, we can take action: We can both redesign technology and change how we bring it into our lives. —Sherry Turkle, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age
If we all replace a few minutes when we might otherwise be sucked into a feed with talking in person, connecting with Marco Polo, or even just putting down our phones, we’d be taking a stand – for our health, for less division, and for a future in which we are supported by technology, not ruled by it.