Taking on the digital dichotomy: when does something cool become something creepy?

Jim Millen
By , - Enabling Digital

If there’s one thing you can guarantee from a Fujitsu Executive Discussion Evening, it’s that you’ll leave having learned something you didn’t already know. Or, at the very least, having been introduced to a new way of looking at the world.

And we don’t shy away from the big topics, either.

At our recent Fujitsu Executive Discussion Evening we debated the ‘digital dichotomy’ – that is, the sticky issue of striking a balance between privacy and personalisation.

“I call it ‘cool versus creepy’,” said our Head of Commercial Sector, Rupal Karia, introducing the discussion to a room full of Fujitsu’s customers.

Not so long ago, people would have a personal relationship with their local shopkeeper – who would know intimate details not only about their shopping habits, but their personal lives too. Think of Ronnie Barker’s Arkwright character in the sitcom Open All Hours.

The advent of supermarkets swapped that personalised service out in favour of lower prices and greater choice. But now the cycle is coming back around, with loyalty cards allowing supermarket chains to amass huge volumes of data about us, and challenging us to consider where we should draw the line.

But at what point does ‘cool’ become ‘creepy’, and vice versa? Thankfully, it was left up to our esteemed guest speakers to try and respond to that particular question.

And our speakers – web psychologist and author, Nathalie Nahai, and Scott Seaborn, director of global mobile strategy at Aimia – were more than up to the task.

Data over-sharing

Nathalie had the floor first, and outlined – with the help of some audience participation – just how much data people often unknowingly share about themselves on a daily basis.

In the tech industry, she said, it’s easy for people to become complacent about this: many in the room were more tech-savvy than the average person when it comes to taking control of what’s shared and what isn’t.

Personality profiling is nothing new, and Nathalie referred back to an influential paper produced by psychologist Donald W. Fiske way back in 1949 to emphasise the point.

But the extraordinary jump our species has made in terms of technological capabilities has opened up previously unimagined possibilities in terms of building detailed profiles of individuals – to the point of even predicting their behaviour.

Researchers have already proven how data from simple binary actions, such as a Facebook ‘Like’, can be compiled to provide incredibly detailed pictures of a person’s character and makeup.

There is, of course, a broad spectrum when it comes to using this information. At one extreme there’s the simple and transparent, such as recommending products based on past purchases on Amazon, which is generally perceived as helpful.

At the other are activations Nathalie categorised as more invasive; using geolocation to track your mobile phone and then send targeted in-store offers related to other online browsing habits, for instance.

Given the choice

The challenge for businesses lies in finding a balance, said Nathalie. People want personalisation and convenience, but they want privacy and control over their data too.

A further complication, of course, is that different people will have different tolerances for this

One answer, then, would be to give people the option of personalisation: ask for their consent, for instance, before showing them a pre-roll advert that’s tailored to them and addresses them by their first name.

Personalisation, Nathalie argued, should be chosen – not assumed.

And without accepting this, brands run the risk of suffering from reactance – an active resistance to change.

With consumer trust dipping, VPN usage on the up, and the use of ad-blocking and location tracker blockers increasing too it seems people are already exercising this resistance.

GDPR will go some way to forcing companies to be more open about data usage, but brands have an opportunity now to take steps on their own terms before waiting to have their hands forced.

Ultimately, the question tech companies should be asking themselves is: just because we could do something, does it mean that we should?

From gimmicks to game changers

That was a rather daunting note on which to tee up Scott, whose career to date has been focused on putting technology’s new possibilities to practical use in exactly the ways Nathalie had described.

Mobile apps, he said, started out as gimmicks, then became products, and are now disrupting and transforming entire businesses.

If there was something he could immediately agree with Nathalie on, it was that technology has been at the helm of dramatic changes in our world.

And it can be a force for good, he argued. Brands and marketers are aiming to use technology and data to improve or in some cases develop entirely new services for their customers.

For Scott, as a self-professed digital transformation person, the most interesting part of his job is the people he’s ultimately aiming to benefit. And, he said, “You have to do things with people, not to them. After all, who wants to create something people don’t love?”

Understanding the playing field – and the players on it

But if we’re going to create these things, said Scott – these things that people love – then we need to think about our work in terms of three things: change, format, and digital platforms.

There’s been more change since Scott was born, he said (without showing his age), than in the 50,000 years before that.

The computing power you carry around in your pocket today is more than what was used to put men on the moon.

How do you maintain pace with that?

Again, it comes down to people: work with them, iterate with them, test on them and use their feedback to actually shape the outcome. They’ll be the best arbiters of what’s creepy and what’s cool.

This then leads us to the issue of format.

Most new mediums tend to borrow from those that came before them and, in doing so, they risk getting it wrong. Just look at the world’s first TV advert: it would work just fine on radio or in print, but falls completely short on television.

If you’re going to work with a new format, then it needs to be doing at least two or three things that you couldn’t achieve with an existing medium.

If you do this right – that is, listening to people, and using new formats where they can serve a real purpose – you’ll find yourself in the realm of digital platforms. And, more than likely, the cool versus creepy debate: the digital dichotomy.

One size for all

So where does this leave us?

Ultimately, the conclusion the room was left with was that when it comes to personalisation, one size doesn’t fit all – but technology can provide us with the tools to navigate the multiplicity of sizes, to find the best fit for everyone.

Needless to say, any unanswered questions were taken to task over the post-event refreshments.

The next Executive Discussion Evening will take place on the 27th of February, 2018. To find out more, head over here – or join our LinkedIn group to stay updated.

Jim Millen

Jim Millen

Digital Content Editor at Fujitsu
I'm the editor for the Fujitsu UK & Ireland blog, and love to write about the exciting work Fujitsu do in digital & technology innovation.

Any feedback on the blog or our other social channels? Please do connect and let me know!
Jim Millen

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