Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Habbo Reveals the Depth of Corporate Surveillance in VWs

Via Emily Claire Afan at Kidscreen online, news this week that Sulake is expanding its already impressive data mining services to advertisers and third-party data collectors, by enabling companies to "track" how, when and why certain topics come up in the everyday "in-world" conversations of players of teen-targeted virtual world Habbo Hotel. The company calls the service "Habble," and describes it as a new "brand measurement tool". What it really does is allow companies to buy access to players' thoughts and peer interactions, through an ongoing and highly context-sensitive tracking of "brand names, slogans or key phrases" in player-to-player chat. The data is then mapped out to enable identification of peaks and drops in the rate at which the word/brand/phrase features as a topic of conversation. The client companies can also contrast these fluctuations with other events, promotional initiatives (either in-game or IRL), measurement variables, players' plans for the coming weekend, etc., etc. As Afan writes:
More than 155 million registered avatars controlled by users 19 and younger are part of the global Habbo community and Habble will enable marketers to measure brand names, slogans or key phrases used over a defined period. Data is updated daily, displayed and analyzed in a chart that maps activity peaks. The tool does not grant access to personal info of Habbo users, but monitors the level of brand mentions and then cross-references them with other measurement data.

As Afan -- and the Sulake press release -- points out, the tool doesn't grant access to the players' personal info...but then again, it doesn't have to to be effective. The fact that the company already knows so much about its players, along with the very flexible ability client companies are given to cross-reference with other measurement data, makes a lack of "personally identifiable info" almost irrelevant. You don't need to know someone's name or address when what you're aiming to find out is whether a particular brand strategy is more or less likely to work on girls aged 12-14 living in the suburbs who spend time in Habbo talking about how much they like both Vampire Weekend and Red Bull. And isn't most market research "anonymous" in this respect anyway? Tracking trends among demographics - groups of people with similar characteristics and/or interests - isn't exactly dependent on individual names and phone numbers.

The tool has already gone through a trial run, back in September, in partnership with MTV International - wherein it was used to track a campaign promoting the MTV European Music Awards. According to the Sulake press release, "After the campaign commenced in September, Habble showed that conversations around the awards were up by 371% in the UK and 762% in the Netherlands." As the press release makes quite clear, however, ad effectiveness is not the only thing companies will be able to measure:
Brands not directly engaging within the virtual world can also use Habble to analyse teen perceptions amongst product categories. This allows brands to see conversation levels related to messages targeted at young people, which could help shape future marketing plans.

Sulake describes Habble as "fly on the wall marketing insight into the hard to reach under-18’s demographic." This is a somewhat innocuous way of portraying what actually amounts to 24-7 corporate surveillance -- spying on players and recording their conversations, all in the aim of finding out more about their preferences, daily habits, and how to more effectively exploit their deepest desires.

Of course, the language used in the corporate materials is much more flippant, calling kids "media savvy" and highlighting their presumably vast ability to identify online marketing. At one point, they describe:
Teens today expect to engage with brands online and are aware of online marketing and advertising campaigns. Habbo research shows that 75% of users accept advertising promotions in Habbo and 56% tell their friends about promotions they have seen; 17% say they do this often.

Note that there is absolutely nothing in there about teens being aware or okay with having their conversations recorded and analyzed to "help shape future marketing plans." And note that the generalization about "teen awareness" ignores much of the research on kids' and teens' online literacy, which can be awesome in some areas, but poor in others -- especially about things like data mining and copyright, which they mostly "learn about" from companies rather than objective third parties. The Sulake argument ignores well circulated studies, such as Turow's research showing that both kids and adults often assume that the mere presence of a privacy policy means that their info will be protected.

Not to mention the clear evidence that the depth and breadth of current data mining practices are misunderstood by even the most digitally literate adults. Which leads me to wonder if we'll hear even half as much about Habbo's new initiative as we do about Facebook selling their (adult) users' information.

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