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Chapter 3 – Metadata, Tracking, and the User’s Experience

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The concepts and technologies described in this module are perhaps the most important (and most controversial) when it comes to understanding the fundamental commercial value of SM and mobile apps. You may have noticed that SM and many mobile apps are free. How can these systems earn a profit if they are giving away the service for nothing?

It has everything to do with the “digital footprints,” or metadata, that people generate as they surf the Internet, view content, create posts within SM systems, and move around in their daily lives with their cellphones turned on. Metadata is then collected from Web browsers by tracking systems embedded within websites and from mobile apps transmitting data to data partners. This data is then used to algorithmically predict an individual user’s interests, preferences, geolocation, movement patterns, and personal characteristics.

Research shows that ordinary people don’t like the idea that they are being tracked (Pew Research Center, 2014). 96% of iPhone users have opted out of app tracking since iOS 14.5 launched. But then how bad is it, really? Aren’t there benefits to being tracked, from the user’s perspective, for the privilege of accessing all of these apps at no cost?

We will explore the value proposition of this arrangement in terms the unique circumstances of your proposed final project idea.

Key Terms

Before you get deeply involved in this week’s readings and media, there is one very important clarification you will need to understand when we refer to privacy in the context of this week’s discussion.

Personally Identifiable Information (PII):  When we refer to metadata collected while surfing the Internet and using mobile apps, we are not referring to PII, or Personally Identifiable Information. An example of PII would be your name, Social Security number, passport ID, credit card numbers, and other similar information.

Instead, we are referring to tracking techniques that collect metadata through the use of cookies and similar technologies.

The difference is significant. PII can identify you as an individual, such as “Joe Schmo owns a house in Weare, NH, has four mountain bikes, has a son named Joe jr. who has ADD and goes to the Winchester private school.”

Tracking, however, is not intended to identify someone individually. Instead, it is intended to synthesize a profile of an unnamed individual for the purpose of grouping him or her with other people with similar profiles, such as: “A man in his early 50s who owns a house, has a family with school-age kids, and likes to do outdoor recreational sports.”

If you respond to this week’s discussion in terms of PII, you will have misinterpreted the focus of this week’s topic.

Consumer journey (or Consumer life journey):  Refers to two basic concepts: the path a person takes through online navigation to arrive at a desired location, and the actual path in physical space that a person follows as part of their daily movement. In both contexts, marketing analysts seek the points in the consumer’s journey that are most likely to gain their attention.

HTTP Cookies: HTTP Cookies are small pieces of data sent from a website and stored on the user’s computer by the user’s web browser while the user is browsing on the Internet. Tracking systems embedded in a website can collect and store cookie data and use it to form profiles of users for marketing purposes.

Location data (or Geo-Location): Location data can be acquired according to the mapping of IP addresses (physical locations of Internet access points) or from the GPS data that is recorded from an activated cellphone.

Metadata:  A set of data that describes other data, or “data about data.” For example, when a person navigates the Internet, the Web browser collects information about what the user is seeking such as which Web pages had been visited, how much time was spent on the page, what was clicked on, objects hovered over, and which ads were clicked. The metadata does not identify the user, but it describes what the user interacted with. Marketing systems (trackers) are able to collect this information and algorithmically derive the user’s interests and preferences without actually ascertaining the user’s PII.

Online Behavioral Targeting (OBT):  The process of placing targeted online ads that are specifically tailored to a user based on their metadata profile.

Social Informatics: The name of the area of research that is concerned with the design and development of “recommender systems” based on metadata.

What should you be focusing on?

Your objectives in this module are:

  • Identify the technical methods used to track an individual’s online behavior and location.
  • Explain how tracking technologies affect what someone sees as they navigate the Internet and physical space.
  • Develop arguments that support or oppose the use of tracking from the user’s perspective.

Readings & Media

Thematic narrative in this chapter

In the following readings and media, the authors will present the following themes:

  1. Your online behavior and physical movement in real space is being compiled and quantified into metadata that can be used to personalize your Internet and media marketing experience.
  2. There are hundreds of trackers reading your metadata and feeding you content and ads that are designed to match your preferences, interests, and location.
  3. While this process might sound creepy, there are actual benefits for users according to marketing industry professionals.
  4. Research indicates that there are generational differences in how people feel about their online presence, location, and sense of privacy.

    Required     Interactive graphic: What is Tracking and How Does it Work? (15:00)

The interactive image below is a simplified description of how SM works to personalize your online experience. Start at 12 o’clock, then move clockwise through the model. Click on each image to see an explanation.

social media diagram


    Required     Radio (3:44): WBUR Here and Now: “The Anatomy Of The Microtargeted Ad.” Retrieved 5-18-2018. This short segment includes an interview with Here & Now media analyst John Carroll who explains how a microtargeted ad is placed in front of a user. Key themes to listen for:

What is computer vision (also known as “machine vision”)? Here is company that provides this service.

What is consumer journey mapping?

What is a micromoment?

    Required     Article: How behavioral advertising works (19 pages)

Neil Patel blog: “Behind the Scenes of Behavioral Advertising” by George Mathew. Retrieved 12-12-2015.  This describes how behavioral advertising works. You only need to read the sections under the headings:

  • How Behavioral Advertising Works
  • Online Behaviors That Advertisers Use
  • How Advertisers Use Retargeting

    Required     Article: What is an online tracker and what do they do? (15:00)

Review the business proposition for Optimizely, a randomly selected tracking company found in a browser’s tracker data:

Welcome to “Let’s personalize digital experiences for your customers. Optimizely is the easiest and most powerful solution for transforming your customers’ experience.”

Note how they refer to a personalized Internet experience as “delightful?”

    Required     Video (22:00): How is cellphone location data used to track human patterns of movement?

This webinar video is produced by The Local Search Association (now Localogy), a not-for-profit industry association of media companies, agencies and technology providers who help on-the-ground businesses market to local consumers. It explains in clear detail how smartphones allow anonymous data to be collected everywhere a person goes and how that location data can be used in a surprising number of ways to predict the best times and places to market to targeted audiences.

    Optional    Article: One Nation, Tracked – An investigation into the smartphone tracking industry (20 pages)

NY Times tracking

    Optional    Article: Do you have a Google account? Try checking how Google has determined how to configure your personalized ad experience.

    Optional    Article: Google is moving away from third-party cookies to its new Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC) system which collects metadata from direct us of their products.

If the articles above made you feel as though your privacy is being encroached, perhaps the next few articles will persuade you to think about the positive effects of tracking.

Under what conditions would a person appreciate having their Internet experience personalized to their interests?

    Required     The benefits of Online Behavioral Targeting (OBT) (6 pages)

Read the following excerpt below from an article, “Optimizing Revenue – The 411 on Behavioral Targeting” (No author indicated), October 29, 2011. Retrieved 12-12-2015.

Benefits of Behavioral Targeting for the User: Most users are strapped for time and only go online to catch up on the latest news or read some articles in between breaks from work or at night before going to bed. Site visitors will obviously appreciate it when they are greeted with content that jives with their interests. This saves the user time and provides the visitor with a richer experience.

For example, when you reach your personalized homepage on Yahoo!, you will be greeted with news articles and editorials that are customized to match or fit your interests. You have the option to stick with the recommendations made by the site, or change the settings so that the content that is displayed is exactly what you’re looking for.

Behavioral targeting can expand the reach of websites, which makes it extremely useful for online publishers and website owners. It also benefits users and advertisers in the process. When properly implemented and optimized, it can serve to benefit all three parties, hitting multiple targets with one stone.

    Required     Article: Facebook describes how targeted ads are beneficial (2 pages)

Gizmodo:  Facebook’s New Ad Campaign Tries To Remind You That Targeted Ads Are Good, Actually” by Shoshana Wodinsky, February 25, 2021. Targeted ads contribute to small businesses’ livelihood. Be sure to watch the brief embedded video in this article.

    Required     Article: Targeted marketing working too well (6 pages)

Forbes: “How Target Figured Out A Teen Girl Was Pregnant Before Her Father Did”. You’ve probably heard this story before, but here is the whole story from Forbes which you should read even if you already know the main details.  By Kashmir Hill, February 16, 2012. Retrieved 12-12-2015 from Forbes Magazine. [ Note: If your Web browser uses an ad blocker, you may need to disable it to see this article or open it in a different Web browser that does not have an ad blocker enabled. ]

    Required     Data: Generational differences in perceptions of Internet privacy (10 pages)

The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project is a non-partisan research group that conducts surveys to monitor public sentiment in a variety of topics. Read about “Public Perceptions of Privacy and Security in the Post-Snowden Era” which surveyed American adults describing their views about privacy, and “Teens, Social Media, and Privacy” which shows how teens share information about themselves online.

What to look for:

  • Compare these two reports. What jumps out at you as the major differences between adults and teens in their willingness to disclose their online presence?
  • What factors can explain this difference?

Optional: Supplemental resources related to tracking, metadata, and privacy:

For students writing the dystopian fiction Option #2, for the Final Paper, you might enjoy this interpretation of an identity-driven future where “points” and metadata have been integrated into your life to an extreme.

HYPER-REALITY from Keiichi Matsuda on Vimeo.

People don’t want to be tracked:  Hoofnagle, Chris Jay and Urban, Jennifer M. and Li, Su. “Privacy and Modern Advertising: Most US Internet Users Want ‘Do Not Track’ to Stop Collection of Data about their Online Activities” (October 8, 2012). Amsterdam Privacy Conference, 2012. Available at SSRN:

Facebook’s average revenue per user as 2021, by region (in U.S. dollars).

An infographic that shows all of the categories of companies that operate on consumer data between you and marketers.

A list of companies that provide data analytics services for marketing:

  • SafeGraph – Processes and predicts areas of physical space optimized for marketing.
  • LiveRamp – “Identity resolution” to connect individuals to marketing spaces.
  • Unacast – Provides information about human traffic patterns for marketing and product development.
  • Foursquare – The “check-in” SM app is developing a location technology platform.

Business Insider:From Start To Finish, This Is How Beacons Send Ads To Your Phone While You’re Shopping” describes how little tiny beacons can be installed in a business to transmit weak Bluetooth signals to a nearby smartphone to promote an ad.

Optional: Supplemental resources related to social informatics

If you are interested in the contemporary issues related to social informatics, user privacy, and the science of social networks, look through the latest SocInfo 2017 Conference program. Look through the conference topics and follow the proceedings. Here is a list of the presenters and their topics.


Pew Research Center (2014) “Public Perceptions of Privacy and Security in the Post-Snowden Era”


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