Users’ Gamble Is Web’s Jackpot

    April 28, 2009
    WebProNews Staff

People forgive advertising if an ad addresses their needs directly and keeps what they enjoy free of charge. They’re even willing to sacrifice a little benign personal information, if information is the currency granting them access to reward. It’s very simple conditioning—action yields reward—and that simple conditioning is the primary reason Facebook will succeed eventually.

Slot machines operate on a similar basis, which is why I generally refuse to participate (in slots, not Facebook). A human puts money in the machine, and hitting the button an unknown number of times issues the random reward of more money, which provides enough stimulation and motivation so the human continues hitting the button until there’s no money left, and, therefore, no more reward.

It’s called operant conditioning: random reward for desired behavior. They use it to train monkeys and rats. Eventually the reward can be taken away entirely, and the rats just keep on doing what they were taught.

The currency on the slot machine of the Web, of course, is personal data. Drop some data into a network, and sometimes you get something great. Sometimes you get jacksquat, and sometimes you get something not so great.

Bruce Schneier
Bruce Schneier,

Not so great is what gives humans for their personal information, which Bruce Schneier at the Wall Street Journal reports is drug company spam. But crappy rewards like that only happen some of the time. Other times you get something great like Gmail, or correctly guessed search results, or funny YouTube videos, or finding out on Facebook a particular jerk in high school is a real lowlife loser headed for incarceration. (Sweet! ‘Bout time.)

For the most part, it’s all a stimulus trade humans willingly participate in. Sure Facebook and LivingSocial can know all about us and do what they’d like with that information, so long as we’re having a good time. We might even put up with a little “democracy theater” we know is a sham from the very get-go. (Ooh, look, I’ve been tagged in a picture.)

All Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg really has to do in the next couple of years is understand where the line is, dance up to it, back up, and wait for the line to move forward. Eventually (probably somewhat already) humans won’t mind Facebook knows what they read, watch, wear, what politics they like, where they go, how they spend their money. Eventually it just becomes a cushy room with all their friends in it and a coupon for a fabric softener they were going to buy anyway painted on the wall.

Schneier thinks it’s not the best idea to trust companies with our data who have no real intention or obligation to protect it. I suppose he’s right, but then what would happen to all the cool stuff we’re randomly rewarded with? Stuff GigaOm’s Staceys Higginbotham talks about, like tracking swine flu with IP addresses for symptom searches and learning how the Apple Store is the most photographed monument in New York City?