Due diligence and transparency in the age of digital tracking

It’s true that digital tracking is pervasive; but comparing the tracking and use of people’s data without their consent (which is what Cambridge Analytica did) to tracking people’s reading behaviour with their consent (which is what a company like Jellybooks does) is not entirely fair. One is a serious breach of trust and violation of privacy for political uses and the other, a tool to develop ways in which we can market books better to sustain a precarious industry. The only way I see these two forms of tracking intersecting is if we assume that digital tracking of any sort is a risky venture, which, true, is not an entirely unreasonable apprehension to have. The Cambridge Analytica incident has especially forced us to revaluate digital tracking and its ethical implications.

What Cambridge Analytica did was manipulate Facebook users by way of an innocuous personality quiz. They dangled the carrot of money in front of people in exchange for access to their Facebook data. The participants knew their data was vulnerable, because they had agreed to the ‘Terms and Conditions’ of the test, but few must have wondered what harm would come from someone knowing what they had “liked” in the past year. Fewer would have realized that they were endangering not just their own privacy but their friends’ privacy as well, because by agreeing to the T&C’s of this test, they automatically enabled Cambridge Analytica to access their friends’ data, thanks to Facebook’s default terms that allowed their friends’ data to be used as well. None of the participants were made privy to the reason their data was being collected. Had they known the reasons, one hopes that most would have declined. Even Facebook – at least from what the reports say – did not know the nefarious ends to which user data was being collected. They thought it was only for academic purposes. Even if we assume Facebook was in on the charade, the people who participated in this quiz and by extension, millions of other people connected to them, definitely did not know that their data was being manipulated for sophisticated “psychological operations”, with the end goal to “microtarget” the British and American electorate to vote in a way that aligned with the political ideology of Cambridge Analytica’s funders.

Now, if we think of the ways in which digital tracking is done in publishing – and if we take the case of Jellybooks – they encode ebooks with software that tracks a reader’s engagement with that book. The software “records the reader interactions across a range of 3rd party apps such as iBooks and Adobe Digital Editions (ADE)”. The data is used to market books more efficiently. Software such as Jellybooks, OptiQly, and machine-learning programs that have the ability to predict bestsellers are useful because they are injecting some much-needed innovation into the publishing industry in a way that helps marketers position books better and readers to discover them easily. The problems occur when tests are conducted on users who are not entirely made aware of what they are getting into. In an interview with The Guardian, Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christopher Wylie talks about the lack of “due diligence” on the part of Cambridge Analytica and its parent company, SCL. I think this due diligence is crucial. It is incumbent upon Jellybooks to be transparent to its ebook testers about its intentions and its end goal. It is also incumbent upon them to ensure that their software is encoded only into the ebook the reader has agreed to test for and not all the ebooks on their devices. If there is gray area, they should provide users information on ways to disable, delete or uninstall their software and ensure their reading behavior does not continue to be tracked by Jellybooks’s third-party affiliates. This sort of due diligence should extend even to organizations we don’t typically associate with participating in the publishing process, like Facebook. We’ve all “liked” posts about ostensibly generic and harmless things like Barack Obama auto-tune singing Ed Sheeran’s ‘Shape of You’, shared information about our favourite films and participated in quizzes like “Which Pride and Prejudice character are you?” When we partake in social media activity, we think we are participating in the extended community of our friends. We don’t think our data is going to be harvested for ulterior motives. I am not sure whether the solution – although some have already done it – is to absolutely stop digital tracking or social media activity. My social media averse family would seem to think so.  But I, personally, think the solution is for organizations to promise complete and absolute transparency and “privacy settings” that, by default, are not checked to allow access to personal data. The solution is also, as Wylie puts it, for users to participate in any digital endeavour with “a healthy dose of skepticism”.  Beats hearing “I told you so” from your siblings.

The Adaption Advantage

As it stands right now, Jellybooks is well-positioned to move in on one of the publisher’s most important (and hardest) jobs: to determine if a book will sell well or not. There is an opportunity for authors to harness this technology and share their books with readers to determine if they are print-ready, bypassing the publisher all together.

Yet there is also an opportunity for publishers here, if they are able to move fast enough (which seems to be a lot to ask in this industry) to take it. If publishers incorporate technology like Jellybooks as a regular part of their service offerings and business practices, there is a chance that authors will feel they need publishers to help them get the most out of the technology to perfect their stories.

Publishers could send draft manuscripts to readers, which would be similar to ARCs but much less polished. The Jellybooks technology would measure reader interest, which the publisher could analyze alongside other decision-making factors (intuition, current trends, etc.) that determine if a book gets published or not.

The data would also help publishers determine how to allocate resources to different books. Books that most people finish and read quickly may only need minor suggestions and copy edits, while books that people stop reading after chapter three would be flagged as needing a closer look at what happens at that point in the book. The editor could then go in and analyze that section of the book, and work with the author to make targeted revisions. This agile revisions process would involve the editor, the author, and the reader (who has been missing from this equation in the past).

By getting more feedback on a book before it is published, publishers and authors can better ensure books will be well received by target audience. Hopefully, the additional work that will go into getting a book ready for print will be balanced out by increased sales that result from stronger books.

Other companies that release products often do rounds of focus group testing to perfect their products, and so it makes sense that this process should be adapted to the publishing industry, especially with the support of technology. Why not have research-based feedback to bolster the editing process? If editors can use this technology to help them do their jobs more efficiently and effectively (by becoming experts in interpreting and responding to the data), then they will be able to mitigate the threat of losing their jobs to the technology.

If we want to stay relevant, we need to find ways to use emerging technologies, like Jellybooks, to our advantage.