Be a Smart Consumer in the Digital Age
Data directly points to how the Information Age is changing the landscape of our society in all aspects: how we behave, our diminishing attention span, an inherited narcissism, this insatiable “need it now” appetite, and the dwindling in-person communication choices we make each day. This immeasurable increase in our access to information – and the decrease of distance from our fingertips to every answer or meal – leaves us to wonder which plot-point we are on within the largest global shift of industries and human behavior since the Industrial Revolution.
As shown by the recent Facebook-Cambridge Analytica issue reported in the news, these new doors are opening for consumers – and for the consequences they may bring into the room. Marketers are incorporating key precisions to laser-focus communications to their audience, and consumers should be as equally focused on avoiding the online manipulations that can lead to real-life consequences.
Here are some suggestions for how to be a smarter consumer in the Digital Age:
1. Start with the knowledge that anything can – and does – exist online.
That means real exists alongside fake, good alongside bad, legal alongside illegal, and everything in between. The internet can be a place of rainbows and unicorns – literally – and it is also a place where you can see the underbelly of the proverbial societal beast. It can be full of opportunities, conveniences, and enjoyment; it can also be a treacherous place waiting to scam, illicit, incite, demean and degrade. Buyer beware, indeed – but times a million. The more you recognize the internet’s duality, the more you will clearly see it for what it is, and also for everything that it isn’t.
2. Be your own reporter.
Anyone online can technically be a ‘thought leader,’ but whether we choose to give these focused individuals enough power to truly rise to that pedestal is up to us, as the ‘led.’ We’ve all engaged with social influencers, personalities or brands we want to emulate, or those we allow influence over our opinions or buying decisions. Just like ‘thought leaders,’ any entity can have a blog or a website that is seen as a ‘news’ source or a hub of opinions. Just because they publish information online does not mean they are a source for legitimate information – this is not a 1:1 equation. What you consume online should always be questioned, researched and fact-checked.
The bottom line for you, as a consumer: Act like a reporter and do some digging. Read multiple articles to gain a well-rounded viewpoint. Verify the source – who is writing this information? What makes them a qualified source? Is there integrity to the information they are putting out there? Is what they are saying verified by other news sources? The same questions can be applied to retail consumers: Know the retailer you are buying from. Do they have integrity? Are they verified? Do they look legitimate? How do they engage with their consumers? One way to find out is to look at the brand’s online presence as a whole, platform by platform. You should not take for granted what you are being sold or where you put your money – information, goods, or otherwise. Make certain that before you click “purchase,” “submit,” or even “share,” you can stand behind doing so. Buyers remorse is proving to give less and less wiggle room.
3. Consider how your data is used.
The more data you supply online, the more targeted ads you will receive. But be aware that, beyond just what you provide, other private information is being pulled from different sources. For example, think twice about blindly allowing online quizzes to access your profile information, which includes your birthdate, location, phone number, friends list, place of work, etc. That fun little quiz you took to kill five minutes of your day now has access to a new metric of private information and can start to link it to other areas of the web. Your information breadcrumbs can – and will – add up quickly for other companies to take a bite of.
4. Protect yourself and your information.
The internet has been in wide public use for just over 20 years now. That’s short enough to know we are only at the start of this journey, while long enough for the novelty to finish wearing off. It’s an appropriate time to start applying the lessons [hard] learned, and that includes being more cautious and protective over our information, our minds and our time. Mindless browsing takes time away from interacting with loved ones or being productive in specific areas of life, but, depending on what you are browsing, can prove to numb the mind. Sharing, or oversharing, information can lead to increasingly annoying ads for things that seem relevant, or more darkly, can be used to manipulate you into forming specific opinions, spending money or adding your name as an endorsement of things you may not fully understand or support. This goes back to #2: dig and verify, always.
5. Pay attention and stay informed. It’s your responsibility.
It’s easy to want to ignore what is happening or to tell yourself that you can rely on others to stay up to date on changes to internet usage, privacy laws and platform user agreements. However, if you continue to use the valuable parts of the internet, you need to accept there is a level of responsibility you own as a trade-off for those benefits. Yes, you can ship toilet paper to your house with a one-click authentication process, but use the time you’ve saved to know the provider you’ve just entrusted with your credit card, home address, phone number, email address and what can feel like most everything else. Consumers are still king – it’s time that we constantly remind the companies of that.
We – providers, consumers and marketers – are all navigating through the Digital Age together. The rules are being written as we go, with some needing to be constantly evaluated, discussed and even re-written. Being an informed consumer has always been preached, but never has it been so critical, and the rapid pace of updates only solidifies the importance of being prepared and protected. So, be click-happy, while also being click-conscious – it will be the defining factor between being a consumer faced with opportunity rather that one faced with barricades of unwanted or stolen information.
Siri and Alexa can still be your besties, but it’s time we show them who really came first.