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.