Can you escape your online ecosystems?4/15/2015
Depending on your shopping disposition, iKEA is either the worst or best storefront in the history of time. Best because it has more options for home decor than any store on the planet; worst because all those options make it the size of three Wal-Marts put together, and it’s built like a hedgerow maze. For the uninitiated, trying to limit an iKEA shopping excursion to under an hour is an exercise in futility. The store is designed to keep you from leaving. If you can’t tell, I hate iKEA, and making matters worse, technology firms are starting to model their businesses after it.
Take a moment and fire up Facebook or Twitter on the closest mobile device to you and click on the first link you see. Never mind the destination or content — do you notice anything peculiar? Maybe the awkward bar at the top of the page with Facebook share numbers? Or the three vertical dots in the corner allowing you to share or Tweet a link to the site? See, unless you’re savvy enough to have your applications set otherwise, you are viewing that site not through your browser of choice, but a browser-like extension of Facebook or Twitter. Why are these (and others) applications keeping you from Chrome, Safari or Internet Explorer? Because letting you escape to the wide open Internet means they can no longer track your habits and web behavior.
Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus and Pinterest developers care little about “competitors.” What they really care about is you — or more appropriately — your data. Understanding how you as a unique consumer absorb the vast expanse of goods and information online helps these tech goliaths tailor advertisements and functionality to you. Building in-application browser windows, Facebook and Twitter can harvest data about how you interact with the content you enjoy. While you think you’ve jumped ship from Facebook’s application, you’re actually only viewing the internet through Facebook porthole.
The concept is known as the tech ecosystem, and the best example is definitely Google. In 2011, when Google Plus was unveiled, hoards of Gmail, YouTube, Google Calendar, Blogger, Picasa, Google Docs and other Google service users were up in arms over the forced intersection and use of Google Plus. Slowly, YouTube users were required to have Google Plus accounts. Blogger posts were automatically posted to Google Plus walls. Photos hosted on Picasa were transitioned into Google Plus photo albums. There are dozens of examples of how Google’s new social network was forcing integration of all its services in the name of offering a more cohesive Google user experience.
The problem is the transparency of this effort felt intrusive. Thousands of users expressed great anger over Google bullying them into using a service they didn’t want and seeming to invade the privacy of their emails, online documents, music, anonymous comments and more. Worse yet, Google Now — the mobile assistant application — offered a constantly updating reminder of how meddlesome the tech giant was being.
But Google Plus still stands, and over time Google Now has become one of company’s top performing services. See, tech ecosystems like Google, Twitter, Facebook and others seem creepy because they’re thinly veiled attempts at user espionage. But, ultimately, they’re useful. Ecosystems generally integrate all your disparate contacts, web habits and data and provide an easy way to update and share them with others. If you personally don’t want tech companies’ platforms collecting data on you, don’t join them. Just as if you hate getting lost in Swedish shopping labyrinths, don’t shop at iKEA. CV
Patrick Boberg is a central Iowa creative media specialist. Follow him on Twitter @PatBoBomb.