If you click on the links over to the right of this site, you’ve probably come across this page at some point:
These pages — which stand between you and the article you really want to read — ask you for three things:
- ZIP Code (which they totally misspell: “ZIP” is an acronym).
- Year of Birth
I dunno about you, but I always lie. Every single time. I type any five numbers in as a ZIP code; I use 1965 as my year of birth (because it is their example); and I say that my gender is “female.”
Why? There are several reasons, starting with the fact they aren’t being honest with me, so why should I be honest with them? They aren’t collecting this information in order to “serve me better,” they are collecting this information for purposes of their own.
It’s a simple — albeit highly cynical — rule of mine: any time someone says that they are doing something “for my protection” or “to serve me better,” I assume that they are doing those things for their protection and to gather my information.
Which is fine, normally: I get that there are tradeoffs. And in many cases, I’m fine with giving up a piece of my privacy in order to gain something else. Every time I use my Ralphs card to get discounts, I know that they are tracking my purchases. But I’m OK with that, because being able to purchase half-price Choice Rib-Eye Steaks is worth the fact that they know that I like to eat Choice Rib-Eye Steaks. It’s the cost of living life in the Information Age.
The other thing that bugged me about these “Help Us Serve You Better” pages is that they kept popping up in different circumstances. They weren’t flat-out registration pages, like for the New York Times, but more akin to shareware nag screens — especially since they kept showing up after I was sure I’d filled them out already. Which was why I started lying: how many times do they need my information?
I guess that you could extend the Ralphs card analogy further — I have to swipe it every single time I shop there for that week’s discounts — but this is somehow different: the value of the content I’m getting probably isn’t worth having to give up that information over and over again.
And besides, doesn’t giving the same data over and over again distort their overall data pool as surely as lying every time??
I did a little digging, and found out that these pages are created by a company called Advance Internet, who do about a dozen of these regional newspaper-affiliated sites, as well as the Conde Nast sites.
That’s why all of these pages are the same, despite the fact that the data is being collected for separate sites, but there still seems to be a disconnect as to how a lot of people get their news these days: not so much as surfing their local newspaper’s website as going to a news aggregator or aggregators that they’ve discovered and/or created.
So the combination of age, gender and locality I give them may not even work for the pool of advertisers on the New Jersey Star-Ledger site, despite the fact that I end up there a lot, reading the latest columns by Alan Sepinwall or Matt Zoller Steitz as linked from the TV newsblog, TV Tattle.
I don’t think any of this is particularly evil — certainly as compared to our own government wiretapping us — and I fully support the fact that they are giving us advertisor-supported “free” information rather than trying subscriptions or micro-payments. It’s just the way they are going about it is particularly annoying, especially to those of us who go to news aggregators and click on headlines, meaning that we end up seeing a disproportionate amount of these pages.
But I still don’t see how they are serving me better, and until I can figure that out, I will continue being creative with my answers.