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The Practice Corner: The Online “Profile”

by Daniel DeWoskin
Trial Attorney

The issue is settled and has been for quite some time now. There is no way to live completely off the grid. At least, there is no way for a rational person who encounters the day-to-day responsibilities and whatnot to live completely off the grid. You do not have to use Facebook. You do not have to tweet, or use a smartphone. All you have to do is be a consumer.

If you use a bankcard, a debit card, a credit card, purchase items online, use social media, market online, or even engage in the most mundane activities using the internet, there is a profile of you. As I do engage in social media, I get a sense sometimes of what my “profile” must be. I use the quotation marks, because I am not referring to how I hold myself out, what descriptions exist regarding my education or experience, or anything of that sort. I am referring to what information that is bought and sold regarding my behavior as a consumer tells others who wish to market to me.

For instance, my Amazon purchases, my credit card purchases and patterns, and what websites I visit once had my social media abuzz with a notion that I wanted to go back to school. Apparently, I wanted to go to some fairly terrible and expensive schools. Apparently, I did not actually want to go to these schools so much as attend them virtually, paying gobs of money for a degree in some rather silly areas. I have no idea what genius algorithms conspired to compile a profile of me that suggested this zeal for more education, but I am likely finished acquiring degrees for the time being.

When I began to pay more attention to what was being marketed to me, aside from the annoying junk mail catalogs I get for having purchased one item during the holidays, it occurred to me just how askew this profile may be, as well as why it might be so unusual and inaccurate. I confess that my family makes purchases from Amazon rather frequently. We love the convenience, the ability to research our purchases, the responsiveness of the service, and many other things about the company. We also have a Prime account, which for a reasonable fee means we get free shipping on lots of purchases, expanded free libraries for Kindle, music, and movies, and a host of other benefits I am sure I haven’t even looked into.

Here’s the catch: we don’t have several Prime accounts, but just one. My wife and I use the same account when we purchase books, professional items, toys for the kids, gifts for weddings, electronics and software, clothing, music, and whatever else. Thus, much of my online profile has less to do with me than someone I am buying something for, or something that someone else in my family is purchasing.

Online, I must appear to be a man who likes Bruce Springsteen, alternative country music, The Simpsons, romance novels, and light saber chopsticks that light up. I am a user of QuickBooks Pro who has a .22 caliber firearm that I need to clean. I am learning to read using phonics, required carpet stair treads in a washable, beige variety, and I apparently did not like the first double-sided tape I purchased for this carpet because I ordered a second type. I also may be contemplating smuggling booze on a cruise ship, or I may just need some expensive plastic bottles that appear to hold shampoo, but come shipped with no liquids inside the containers. There really is no way to know.

This is just a sampling of some of the things that have been ordered by members of my family over the past few months, and certainly it gives little insight into how I might be interested in online educational courses. However, it did get me thinking about how online marketers get their dossiers on consumers. I would not refrain from buying something from Amazon because I thought it would mislead some company that wants to sell me something. That would be ridiculous. Besides, if I chose instead to go to a Target or other department store, the use of my credit card or debit card could just as easily immortalize my purchase of Nilla Wafers, brake parts cleaner, impulse buy candy, and baby shampoo.

Given the different incentives for customer loyalty programs, grocery stores can likely predict my every move. I tend to think that if I was ever privy to this raw information, just what I purchased at a grocery store over the course of a year, I might be proud of how often I bought fruit and vegetables and steered clear of snack cakes and chips. I might be.

It is no secret that I am huge fan of Costco. I love the stores, I love the company, and I spend far too much time there. And yet, if I had one choice of what I wanted my consumer profile to look like, I would want all marketers to look at my footprints at Costco. Even when I purchase gifts for people at Costco, I almost feel as though the merchandise has been pre-selected in terms of its substance or quality. It all goes to the treasure hunt aspect of Costco shopping. The items that I purchase routinely would show that I am a dog person, one who has a cat. I drink coffee, but almost never buy the same coffee two times in a row. I either have children or prefer eating foods that come shaped like Disney characters. And Caesar salad and chicken salad might never be unwelcome in the fridge.

Costco. They know me there. I should count my lucky stars that hotdogs must be purchased with cash, or I would be surprised how many I consume over the course of a year. Sure, my family makes purchases there, too, but it would be much less hodgepodge than what my wife’s preferred book lists look like next to my own. My wife reads several books a week, which far outpaces my own practice. She reads while I watch movies and television programs, which include a lot of PBS cartoons that educate about animals or enhance vocabulary.

As I have said, it is impossible to live off the grid and avoid consumer tracking. Even if I paid with cash, despite the burden of always having enough cash on hand, the expense for not being a “loyal” customer and the inability to research different products online are drawbacks that more than warrant the sacrifice. The key is not to be swayed into thinking I am the person that their fancy algorithms and data say I am. Now, is it really too late for me to be a videogame programmer, and how much time do I have for online classes each night after my kids go to bed?

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