In e-commerce, where's the line between targeting and predation?
The Wall Street Journal has a great scoop: Orbitz, the online travel agency, has realized that users who visit the site on Mac computers spend as much as 30 percent more on hotels than their PC-using counterparts. Based on that insight, the company is starting to show Mac-based visitors different, and sometimes more expensive, hotel options. "The Orbitz effort," reporter Dana Mattioli notes, "which is in its early stages, demonstrates how tracking people's online activities can use even seemingly innocuous information -- in this case, the fact that customers are visiting Orbitz.com from a Mac -- to start predicting their tastes and spending habits."
It's easy to be indignant about all this -- shameless discrimination! -- but it's also worth wondering why we feel so justified in our indignation. What Orbitz is doing is actually not new, nor is it, necessarily, pernicious. The system isn't charging Mac users more for the same hotel rooms; it's simply showing them the more expensive rooms first -- under the logic, it seems, that the more expensive rooms are the rooms Mac users most want to see anyway. (And users who are first and foremost looking for a good deal, regardless of the computer they're using to do the looking, always have the option of sorting by price, Orbitz points out. If a low price -- or at least a good value -- is your primary goal, you're likely using that feature anyway.) So, basically, Orbitz is taking info it's collected about users and acting on it. If that's discrimination, it's a very gentle form of it.
And if it's discrimination, then it's the kind that happens to us so routinely that we've pretty much stopped noticing the happening. It's discrimination in the guise of "targeting." Every day, content is served to us -- market goods are offered to us -- based on our genders and our ages and our locations and our friends and our relative enthusiasms for the "Call Me Maybe" meme. And based on, of course, myriad other factors that are actually much more personal than which operating system we happen to prefer. Each web search, each online purchase, each digital movement is, for marketers and the services that host them, a little swatch of color that shades the vast tapestry of our online identities. More and more, marketers know us, comprehensively if not intimately; that's why predictive analytics can be, actually, predictive.
So the Orbitz news, as great as it is as a scoop, isn't much of a revelation: all it tells us is that the machines that record our routines are simply one more data point for marketers to use in their attempts to sell us things. And we users, of course, have a vested interest in those attempts. Relevance is key, in marketing as in so much else in the digital world. The pact we make with the companies that track us -- and the Faustian bargain we draw with the Internet at large -- is the exchange of information for pertinence. I'm happy to tell you things about myself -- and I'm happy to have you track my webby wanderings -- if you, in turn, give me things that are relevant to my interests.
In that sense, Orbitz's discrimination is actually -- perversely -- doing its duty to its customers. It's making the search for a hotel more efficient and friction-free, serving Mac users, right off the bat, the hotel rooms they're more likely to purchase. And it's doing the same, of course, for PC users. It's targeting its content to its customers. Not only is that not a bad thing; it's a good thing.
And yet ... it feels like a bad thing. It feels discriminatory. It feels predatory. (As Clara Jeffery put it, the whole thing smacks of "data gouging." And: totally.) But if Orbitz is doing, you know, exactly what every other Internet company does every single day, then what, exactly, is so troubling about its particular spin on relevance? Why does the company's canny marketing feel just a little bit creepy?
Here's my hypothesis: it's not the discrimination that's the problem; it's the categories that inform the discrimination. We've come to terms with content- and ad-targeting that's based on age and gender and social graph and, in particular, location; we're much less comfortable, however, with targeting that's based not on who we are, but on what we have. We're creeped out by a marketing strategy that takes every little tiny detail about our lives -- operating system! blood type! current mood! -- and uses that information to sell us stuff. Even though, on some level, we want it to do the taking, and the using.
Orbitz, after all, isn't just tracking us. It's classifying us (in the name of serving us!). The company is essentially creating a class structure of -- and for -- its users. It's taking that all-too-familiar force, conspicuous consumption, and reversing it. Because the conspicuousness, now, is implied. Everything we do online refers back, Orbitz is saying, to status. And we Americans have never been particularly comfortable with the awkward notion of class identity. So here's a company, now, telling us that even the most seemingly innocuous choices we make as consumers actually contain manipulatable data -- not just about who were are, but about where we stand. Those choices, Orbitz is suggesting, function as their own kind of status update. An all too literal kind.
To an extent, sure, status has always been implied in marketing. High-end magazines have always advertised high-end products to "high-end consumers." Department stores have always distinguished between standard and designer brands. Discrimination is a matter of division, but it's also a matter of market efficiency: You direct your stuff to the people who are most likely to pay the most money for that stuff. The Orbitz approach is part of a long tradition.
The Orbitz approach is unique, however, in that it's not enacted in public. It plays out within interfaces that are tailored to individual users. The Journal scoop is a scoop only because of the opacity of the Internet's marketplace: We users have very little way to know what's being served to our fellow customers -- on Orbitz, but also on many other sites. While we can browse the designer clothes racks at Nordstrom, and see the ads printed in Vogue ... we have to trust -- just trust -- that digital commerce services are showing us the same information they're showing everyone else. We have to trust that Orbitz is discriminating in the neutral sense, rather than the other one.