Getting kinky for the sake of data

Apple rolled out a new tool that makes online tracking more obvious. What does it mean to want to stay tracked?

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Tracking feels bad

Earlier this year, I wrote about how an online ad for a dumb hat threw me into a tailspin. Utilizing information about my online habits, the ad appeared onscreen without my consent, revealing an unpleasant truth about my online habits. Platforms and apps track an all-encompassing set of information about how we use the internet, even when we’re not using them: which sites we visit, how we arrive there, how long we spend doing stuff, which buttons we click, etc. 

According to a recent study from Ghostery:

Trackers that collect data on internet users’ online behavior are present on at least 79 percent of websites (unique domains) globally…and 15 percent of all page loads on the internet are monitored by ten or more trackers

The information gleaned from this tracking is the lifeblood of the internet. Mostly, it powers which products and content we see online. Money goes into figuring out how to collect the data, which informs advertising, which sells products. A little money comes in, far more comes out.

Out in the world, the feeling of being followed is a gently rising tension, crescendoing with a hair-raising whisper in the ear. Online, we’re numb to it; even if we’re using our devices to communicate with someone, we’re physically alone, interfacing with the screen. Nonetheless, from our experience in real life, we know being followed is unpleasant. This raises the question, what type of person consents to it, especially from a brand?

Internet connected kink

This week, we get closer to finding out: Apple released iOS 14.5, a major software update for all iPad and iPhone devices which includes a tool called ‘App Tracking Transparency’. Via a popup window, the tool alerts users to when an app wants to share user information with a 3rd party. Beginning this week, any app that tracks users has to include the popup in its next software update. 

If users say ‘no’, the app has to stop following. Boring. Not titillating. 

Saying yes, however, is online exhibitionism for the eyes of brands in its most purified form. In this form of exhibitionism, the rush of exposing yourself arises from revealing your online proclivities for the sake of an onslaught of bespoke advertising. Disrobing for new robing. 

This perversion for the benefit of commerce is something the platforms want us to think is ordinary. In their mutually beneficial thinking, you give them data, they show you better stuff to buy. To platforms such as Google, Facebook, and Amazon, in helping them, they’re helping you. Take Facebook’s stance on the issue:

“Apple’s latest update threatens the personalized ads that millions of small businesses rely on to find and reach customers.”

These platforms reason that you can’t find the stuff you need on your own. They see themselves akin to real estate agents who ask for basic information about budgets and preferences then help find a home for the buyer. What the real estate agent hasn’t done, which apps have, is follow buyers from showings, to the barber, to daycare, to the grocery, and finally to the 7-11 for a quick Slim Jim, all while prodding you to buy a house.

Believing they want the best

The aforementioned platforms are unwilling to admit that anyone with basic internet literacy is able to find whatever products or services the platforms are ostensibly helping to surface on their own, without help. If someone can pull up Google, create a Facebook account, or shop on Amazon, it’s safe to assume they’re adept enough to enter terms into a search engine which would direct them to where they need to go. Eg: ‘New tires, Westminster, CO.’ 

Not only is tapping ‘yes’ the sublimation of exhibitionism into a more socially acceptable capitalist kink, it’s a naive belief that companies like Facebook and Google have our best interests in mind. Apps, alongside 3rd party ad platforms, form an intricate web where information is passed criss-cross amongst one another, all for the purpose of sustaining business models and refining information. To believe it’s crucial that for Google to serve you the best ads for athletic wear, your GoogleMaps usage data must be combined with your search on OkCupid for singles interested in BDSM themed Dungeons and Dragons, misplaces faith in companies notorious for making money off of selling everything you do with an internet connection.

Given how ad platforms use our data, it’s difficult to be optimistic about any change in privacy or user-control. Nevertheless, handing control of how data is shared over to the consumer in such a forthright and obvious manner is a positive step in the right direction. Or, perhaps we’re all far kinkier than we know, and we’ll hand it over in just a matter of time. 


The Mandate Letter is a newsletter by Olympian and Men's Health contributor Jason Rogers. Each issue dives into the weird, conflicting, and outright harmful messages society offers us on the topic of masculinity. Drawing from interviews with experts and his own sleuthing, Jason scratches at the question: how can we offer a more helpful and inclusive definition of what it means to be a man? I found his recent post about Surfing and Harmful Masculinity to be particularly insightful.

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