Ah, millennials. If The Olds are to be believed, our phones are permanently attached to our hands and hot takes on Twitter have replaced all forms of intellectual rigor and Instagram likes are like water to an increasingly thirsty generation. And some of this is true. I personally can no longer make it through a meal without checking my DMs. This is quite pathetic.
But there is more nuance to the conversation around social media than boomers and Gen X’ers might imagine. Millennials are often expected — and in many cases required — to maintain social media presences for the good of their careers. In certain fields, especially the creative, followers are often a key measure to gaining employment. It’s depressing. And there is another major concern: privacy.
In the recent past, social networks, especially Facebook, have come under fire for their uses of data mining. Facebook presents user data to advertisers, who use said data for the creation of targeted ads (savvy users are aware of this, but it’s not exactly shown in bold print). And thus countless op-eds have presented Facebook as an “ad-targeting machine” disguised as some kind of wide-ranging community, a point that is very difficult to argue against. Founder Mark Zuckerberg himself hasn’t exactly done a great job of dissuading critics.
Millennials aren’t blind to these realities. According to people in their twenties and early thirties surveyed across the country, there’s an increasingly disillusioned feeling surrounding social networks. Once targeted ads hit Instagram, it seemed like we’d reached a point of no return. As those surveyed detailed, in this day and age it’s virtually impossible (pun intended) to have the same reasonable expectation of privacy that previous generations enjoyed, and yet no one wants to feel like a guinea pig for direct marketing online. Yes, these ads enable us to use social platforms for free, but it’s also creepy as hell to see something you once randomly Googled at 2 AM pop up in a feed without thinking you’d agreed to it. Here are a few thoughts from millennials (all of whom wished to be kept anonymous) on direct marketing, privacy, and how much they value it.
C, 24, entertainment executive: “I value privacy, and I certainly don’t want the government to be monitoring like, my search history, but at the same time I accept very viscerally this idea that the internet is a life in public. Like Aaron Sorkin says, it’s ‘written in ink, not pencil.’ Targeted ads are something I accept without thinking as an inevitability with online living, in a way that bothers me when I think about it for more than 2 seconds. The hesitation towards advertising is when I’m not asked, or when that ask is done in a way that feels sneaky or deceptive.”
M, 26, creative producer: “Everyone has a right to privacy. If you post something online, you sacrifice privacy for that specific thing — but you don’t sacrifice privacy for anything else.”
I, 28, programmer: “I value privacy relatively highly — I use a VPN and take data security fairly seriously (password managers, trying to rotate passwords on important sites fairly regularly) but I don’t make a significant effort to obscure my identity. In terms of reconciling privacy with having an online presence, I would say that I don’t — I think that using a public network means being aware that your data and information are potentially always vulnerable. I’d like to see the way that [targeted ads are] implemented change (ability to opt in / opt out, control how specific data is, etc.), but I also feel reasonably comfortable with the general idea that in exchange for my usage of a service that I’m being used as a product.”
A, 25, architect: “I think being a part of society today entails accepting the lack of privacy. Having accepted it, I feel like the best thing we can do is try and only put information online that we feel comfortable not being private. I’m not super active on social media as a result, but I’m also not going to not be a part of it.”
T, 27, editor: “I highly value privacy and try not to post anything too personal on any social media accounts. It’s difficult to reconcile with having an online presence because you naturally have to put yourself out there to get jobs and interact with society and it can be a bit of a sacrifice, especially in my field of work. I find [ads on social networks] terrifying because I’ve actively seen targeted ads change when I mention something in real life, independently of using those apps. I would prefer my data not be used to manipulate my buying decisions.”
E, 27, content strategist: “I think being a part of society today entails accepting the lack of privacy. Having accepted it, I feel like the best thing we can do is try and only put information online that we feel comfortable not being private. I’m not super active on social media as a result, but I’m also not going to not be a part of it. At first, targeted advertising seemed like a scary thing, but it’s normalized for me at this point.”
M, 26, writer: “I definitely value my privacy, but I think growing up with social media and constantly crafting one’s ‘brand’ has given me and most people our age a really different understanding of privacy. My dad still balks at the idea of posting a status update or photos. But for us it’s been so much a part of our identity formation that it feels a bit second nature. When it comes to ads, it does sincerely creep me out to look at a product online and then have that product follow me around for weeks on end. I’m extremely skeptical of the notion that advertisers can give consumers what they want more accurately and efficiently by controlling all our data. It’s really concerning that these corporate behemoths have access to our purchasing and browsing habits. It may seem like innocuous information, but what we read, what sites we frequent, and what we buy is incredibly personal and revealing information. In its most benevolent use case, it’s used to sell us more stuff, and in its most malevolent I think that sensitive data could easily be weaponized.”
B, 27, gallerist: “Privacy is an essential, lost art. I put less of myself into the internet, choosing abstraction or comedy to keep aesthetic distance from an unseen audience. When there is a moral catastrophe or event of scale I’ll post about news or ask friends to donate to a natural disaster, but when it comes to my personal affairs, I have become wary of having my picture taken or my name tagged. In being selective with what I share I think I maintain control over my sense of self and purpose, but who’s to say. I know the internet can be a nourishing place socially. That being said, it’s been important for my happiness to keep a certain distance.
Targeted ads are, in a way, the cost of being online, but I do my best to confuse the algorithms by reporting all ads as ‘inappropriate’ or ‘irrelevant.’ I regularly change my age and gender, and I use adblockers as much as possible without stripping away content. I started making the effort around 2009 when I first noticed targeted ads on my Facebook feed. I’d love it if it changed, I find it disturbing to be stalked by corporations, but man do I love to scroll.”
P, 32, creative director: “I have privacy concerns but understand that targeted ads is the cost of signing up to this platforms, and an online presence is essential to my work. I like the idea of being more in control of the data I share and what advertising I choose to consume.”
C, 25, musician: “I feel like our generation has been raised to not be so worried about online privacy because it just feels like there is no alternative. Ultimately I do value privacy in theory, but it feels like a cost of participating in society. Not just online, but also just walking around in the street! There are tons of cameras on us all the time. But I do think these kinds of ads are annoying and creepy. I hate them and want to turn them off. Is there a way to do this? Help!”