Big tech companies need to start offering alternatives to the way that information is harvested and ads are served, writes Guillaume Kendall.

You may not be surprised to know that in terms of data, Facebook collects whatever you give to it. Clicks, reading choices, updates, browsing habits, friends, family and more. When you use Facebook you agree to this – have you read all of the terms and conditions? Probably not. The combined terms and conditions of the 13 top apps, including TikTok, Whatsapp and Zoom would take more than 17 hours to read and they’re all written in the sorts of legal terms that send most people to sleep.

If we don’t understand what we are signing up to, then we don’t know where data goes, we don’t know how we are being tracked and we won’t really understand how we are served advertising unless we can remember all the other sites we looked at and make that connection. 

In a brilliantly haunting piece earlier this year, author Oliver Burkeman asks, “At best we’re on Earth for around 4,000 weeks – so why do we lose so much time to online distraction?” I’m not against being distracted sometimes. Resting the mind can be a good thing, but when we are distracted, I would hazard a guess that we’d prefer to be spending time doing what we actually want online and not what is forced upon us in terms of irrelevant advertising.

It feels like a devil’s bargain sometimes, using the services of the big tech companies means we agree to serve up our data. But should we also be agreeing to give away and waste our time? Just how much irrelevant advertising do we sit through? Even on TV you can record and forward through things – but on tech platforms it seems that we have no autonomy, no choice.

A quick search on Twitter shows that people are irritated by having to watch ads for short videos – in some cases the video is shorter than the ads. Is this really a good user experience? In the US alone, social media advertising revenue was set to pass $50bn this year, with 85% of that coming from mobile ads. That money does not pay for the time spent waiting for them to end or to be skipped.

The web doesn’t have to be a passive place

For many years people have talked about owning your data, or switching to social networks that have privacy and security in better shape. But for those who are less tech-inclined your own data collection can feel like more work than it’s worth and other social networks are not where most of your friends are. 

Big tech companies need to start offering alternatives to the way that information is harvested and ads are served. Automation seems to work for only one side of the equation and it’s not really the audience. Incoming cookie corrections are a start, but still there are sites which only offer a binary choice – don’t like the deal? Don’t use the site. We have no method of negotiation.

I have skin in the game, of course. The whole thing bothered me so much that I started a service to pay people for watching ads. But I also think it is time that web users were rewarded for their time.

The web doesn’t have to be a passive place, like being stuck watching TV ads in the 80s. We have options. The more flexible brands and tech businesses are, there’s a chance that they will start to win as people work out what they should and can decide for themselves.

What does this mean for advertisers?

In my view, if they don’t adjust their approach accordingly, brands are not only wasting their potential customer’s time – they’re also directly funding all the toxic, divisive content on social media.

Further, unless their approach changes, brands risk grating emotionally with potential customers. It actually annoys me when I’m badly advertised to, especially if I’m already a customer. Because of the ‘devil’s bargain’, I know just how much data I’m giving away, and I expect it to be used better.

This, in turn, increases the barrier to entry to the attention economy for smaller brands. Wastage is so high, meaning you need to be able to afford to waste millions of impressions week after week to get enough awareness out there.

Finally, brands have much to gain from being, acting and being seen to be kind. The current approach is impacting the mental health of their consumers. Let’s stop actively wanting them to spend as long as possible refreshing dopamine educing feeds, so brands can hope to have half a second of attention amongst all the noise.