Since 2001, I have been building devices designed to communicate using the Internet. I’m a digital strategist with a portfolio of websites and digital marketing campaigns.
I have grown curious about the effects of my work, and the work of others like me, on people around the world.
In an attempt to scratch this itch, I’ve been asking a lot of questions and digging around in the literature. The bumper sticker on my worn-out Honda CRV reads, “I’m not lost, I am exploring.” That concept is the lens I used as I explored the idea that the Internet has had and is having a profound influence on how we think, what we know, and how we relate to one another.
One concern I have centers around ethics, or the potential lack thereof, within the community of people working in digital strategy.
Corporations and large organizations now hold astounding amounts of data on all of us. With machine learning, algorithmic targeting, and carefully curated messaging, they are trying to deliver you messages that you will find engaging (Davis and Patterson, 2012).
Eric Schmitt explains how it works at Google in this interview on YouTube.
Here, Schmitt says that at Google, the idea “is to get right up to the creepy line but not cross it.” He talks about the “creepy line” but does not draw that line for us. How do we know where that line is? In many cases, companies are not clarifying their ethics regarding online communications. Instead, the line is a proprietary idea held and perhaps only partially understood within that organization.
Don’t get me wrong, I love googling just as much as the next person. My concern is about the ethics practiced by many organizations regarding data mining and targeting. The dilemma is becoming clear. Digital strategist are working to expand the Internet without defined ethical guidelines.
Perhaps a larger concern for me is with respect to my own ethical practices. This exploration has brought me to the realization that my ethics are based on practices of the past even as I help to build the communication machines of the future.
As a digital leader at my organization I have a responsibility to help establish and communicate our ethics and attitudes on this subject. Having a core understanding of how my decisions affect others will aid me in drawing a creepily line of my own.
I start by attempting to answer the following questions:
- What is the effect of algorithmically delivered news?
- What data do they have on us?
- How do we know what to trust?
- Who do we trust?
- Where does the conversation around digital marketing ethics sit today?
This list is incomplete; there are so many more questions, but it would be impossible to list them all and try to answer them all. My journey is only beginning.
Davis, K. & Patterson, D. (September 20, 2012). Ethics of Big Data. O’Reilly Media, Inc.
Eric Schmitt discusses how algorithmic targeting works at Google (2011). Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uB-2n6KSYWk