People think that Silicon Valley giants like Google and Facebook harvest every scrap of information about us they can, enabling them to zero in on exactly who, what and where we are. They do this, we're told, to serve up highly targeted contextual advertising, to pitch products we want before we even know we want them.
Everybody is worried about what companies know about us. It's an invasion of privacy, we're told. Big Data voodoo is so strong they know more about us that we know about ourselves, pundits say.
So why do they seem to know nothing?
My Facebook News Feed this morning confronted me with a huge ad for a big-screen Samsung TV. In Spanish. Is this the total information awareness that Big Brother Facebook is capable of?
In five years of using Facebook, I have never typed Spanish words on Facebook. Yet Facebook has concluded that I speak Spanish.
Yes, I was in Spain recently. But now I'm in Morocco, where hardly anyone speaks Spanish.
Second, half the posts I make are about my digital nomad lifestyle, about how I travel full time and have done so since last summer. Checking my log-in locations, Facebook could have concluded this on their own. People who travel full time and who don't have living rooms generally don't buy big-screen TVs.
In short, Facebook is supposed to know everything about me, but they're ads tell me they know nothing.
Twenty years ago, advertisers worked hard to gather the trifecta of contextual advertising data: age, gender and zip code. From that limited data, they could target ads and mail catalogs.
Today, a company like Facebook should know all three of those things and a hundred more. Yet ads on Facebook reveal that they're generically targeting a middle-aged male. They're not able or willing to use what they should know. They don't even seem to know my zip code or where I am at any given moment.
Go check on your own Facebook account: Look at the big ads on your News Feed and the little ads off to the right. Are those results tailored just for you?
Part of the problem could be that I don't use Facebook heavily.
But I post like a maniac on Google+, pouring my guts out and chronicling every detail of my existence in public, private and everything in between. Maybe Google knows all about me.
A new Forrester report says Google should know more, will dominate this business and that Facebook will fail to compete. The reason, they say, is that Google does and will have a lot more data, a lot better day and a lot more skill with crunching that data into meaning.
I don't doubt that analysis, but today Google's ability to use what it knows isn't great. While there's zero advertising on Google+ itself, we should assume they harvest data there to serve up ads on Search, Gmail and YouTube.
Yet I've never been impressed by the relevance of Google advertising. The only exception is that sometimes I'll visit a wristwatch site or something, and for a while I see a lot of wristwatch ads. Is that an example of Big Brother knowing my most intimate preferences?
Gmail advertising seems more relevant sometimes, because they target against the actual conversation you're reading. Yet Google doesn't seem to apply what they know about me to fighting spam.
I've been using Gmail for about eight years. Ever since Google has offered a "Report Spam" button, I had used that button for every single email I have received in the Russian, Chinese and Portuguese languages. And yet to this day Gmail continues to deliver obvious spam in these languages.
I'm a journalist, not a Big Data programmer. But this doesn't seem to me like a hard problem to solve. How long will it take Google to learn that I don't speak Russian and that any email delivered in Russian is unwanted?
We keep being told (and I've been describing it for five years) about the coming world of contextual mobile advertising. You've heard the scenarios a hundred times: You're walking down the street, your phone beeps, and an alert tells you you're just around the corner from a great deal on something you personally care about.
Has this ever happened to you? Me, neither.
I download and run every supposedly invasive, data-harvesting Big Brother app I can find, from Siri to Grokr to EasilyDo to Google Now and I have yet to receive a single result that was astonishingly relevant, although Google Now is getting there. More to the point, I have yet to be served an ad that treated me as anything but an age, gender and zip code, and far too often not even that.
Why won't they invade my privacy already and show me some relevant ads?
Where's my jet pack? Where's my nuclear-powered flying car? Where's my domed city of the future?