I have never thought about Mack Weldon before this morning. As their website boasts, they “make great underwear, t-shirts and socks”, and apparently off the back of this superbly succinct pitch, my roommate bought some briefs. He got a solid deal on them, and alerted the apartment this morning as we began our day congregating in our living room (see: “non-bedroom patch of apartment”), as twenty-somethings are wont to do when they can disguise a humblebrag of materialism under the auspices of smart shopping.
It was nearly instantly forgotten as I got on with my day. But, to my surprise, Mr. Weldon made another surprise appearance in my day just a few hours later as I waited in line for lunch. There, scrolling mindlessly through my Instagram feed, I noticed a particularly pointed advertisement:
There they were, in all their (remarkably-unimpressive-for-a-pair-of-$28-briefs) resplendent glory. Plastered all over my instagram feed was an advertisement for a product I had neither googled nor yearned for nor even conceived of 24 hours prior. Through data talking between my oft-social-media-linked roommate and myself(likely), iPhone audio capture of my roommate’s lecture this morning(less likely) or the statistical marketing version of the Minnesota Miracle(Name me a year that’s made sense since the world ended in 2012 tho #woke #mayans #apocalypse #DBCooperStillUnsolved), staring me in the face was a crystal clear demonstration of the sheer amount of information we volunteer in such a cavalier fashion to the apps that make up our day.
There is a rational argument to be made, about how Mack Weldon is one of thousands of corporations to participate in whatever data auctions happen in the darkness of the ether (or the light of a silcon valley conference board room). For every shiver we get from the Mack Weldon ad in line for lunch, there are at least a half dozen more positive interactions, of our favorite pair of joggers purchased from a previously unknown brand or a friendly reminder from Stubhub to purchase those Sam Smith @ MSG concert tickets you had been ogling for some time (can the algorithms find me a date too?). Thank god for these targeted ads to help us pass the long seconds waiting in line for lunch or ignoring our friends or distracting us from the realities of our ho-hum job. Like a butler who’s just a little too helpful, sometimes we just have to remind big brother to take a chill pill, right?
But how targeted is too targeted? Are we comfortable with the intrusion? Have we paid it no mind? Does the convenience of it our society necessitate some bumps along the way? And how we are to police the policemen?
Of course, I speak specifically those impossibly-accurate-ads you see pop up on your Instagram scroll of Facebook feed. But I also speak of Amazon opening up a completely robotic convenience store and FlyWheel taking down every iota of your personal information. I speak of seamless peppering you with food “you would like” and even your discover weekly playlist on Spotify you think is so benign. It’s gone beyond the Nigerian Prince in his desperate plea for information. We laugh at him. But everywhere we look, there’s someone collecting something about us and we don’t laugh at him, perhaps because he is faceless, and perhaps too for all he does for sourcing and eliminating the tough choices in life with his pre-vetted “suggestions”. But for a brief few “aha” moments, we seem to mostly ignore the cognitive strain it causes. It’s far easier to keep our head down, keep swiping the credit card and wearing that new hoodie and inviting the other into our life more and more.
I don’t have great answers here. But my prediction is two-fold.
The first is a society that progressively homogenizes. It seems to be a statistical law that as more and more is suggested to us, the suggestions will ultimately begin to converge. So yes, fancy yourself a trend-setter with those new boots or that trip to an exotic locale. Just know that others are seeing the same recommendations, forming the same profiles to the tech companies, becoming indistinguishable if not for some number on some server. You may soon be unique in the visage of your phone alone, a carbon copy of the others falling down the same decision trees they didn’t even know they had climbed in the first place.
But there may be a bright side. Millenials are the social media generation. We came of age with social media, but social media came of age with us as well, and continues to evolve. As we grow and ultimately define the trends that surround us, the big tech companies will be forced to adapt. Taking back the personal taste autonomy from big brother has a path. We must remain conscious, vigilant in how we consume what is put in front of us. We must speak up when we feel infringed upon and must deny the “panaceas” peddled. When we vote with our wallets but also our likes and our shares and online presence, the other will listen. Like any younger sibling worth their salt, we must annoy ‘till we get our way.