Internet Tracking: The Modern Marketing Practice that Stirs the Most Suspicion

(Here is the opening to Internet Tracking: It’s Not Creepy … It’s 2018, the downloadable feature story by Capture Higher Ed’s Sean Hill that examines online tracking and retargeting, how it is used, and how we feel about it.)

Without question, many Internet practices are controversial. From the time of our first email accounts, our inboxes have been flooded with bogus requests from friends who’ve “lost their passport and desperately need money,” or phony “Nigerian princes” who’ve discovered millions of dollars worth of unclaimed gold bullion that they benevolently want to send our way. All they need, of course, is our bank account number.

In light of what we now know about the web, such ridiculously amateur scams seem quaint. Yet there’s always a new threat to consider — a threat that is certainly relevant for those students and their families being recruited by potential colleges and universities. Increasingly, we now worry about privacy and our very identity, both of which can be stolen as easily as money from our checking accounts.

The stunning ubiquity of social media means that peoples’ lives — their photos, thoughts and shopping preferences — are increasingly public. Which is to say, available. With so much of our lives posted so accessibly on a worldwide system, and living as we do in a world driven by markets, it was only a matter of time before buyers and sellers got involved.

Now, internet marketing is also ubiquitous; our Facebook pages are laden with ads, as are our email accounts and, indeed, even pages we simply visit for news and weather information.

One of the marketing practices that stirs the most suspicion is internet tracking.

The World Wide Web is, by its very nature, the planet’s richest gold mine of data. The more of ourselves that we put on the internet, whether through personal websites, page visit histories or what we type in emails, the more it seems that the ads popping up on pages we scroll through are aimed directly at us. It’s all very Orwellian.

But every tool has multiple possible uses, and tracking is certainly a tool. You could argue that daily commuters gather data about traffic patterns in their effort to identify the best route to work with minimal interference. Parenting requires constant monitoring to establish and reinforce patterns of behavior such as, say, picking up toys in a timely fashion or finishing a plate of peas at dinner. Although these are facetious examples, they make the point.

How we perceive and tolerate this seemingly invasive dynamic — and internet tracking is, at this point, an immutable fact of digital life — may have more to do with our understanding of its purpose than, say, with the intent behind its use. Why is a particular company, or a fundraiser, or even a liberal arts college, employing tracking? What is it that they want and, more importantly, what is it that we, the public want?

By Sean Hill, Senior Content Writer, Capture Higher Ed