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How to declutter your digital experience and think about your data privacy

I had this piece ready roughly three weeks ago. The only thing left was to publish. I decided to run it by my friend for one last time. She came back to me with: “I reviewed your hate letter to advertising :).”

It struck me a bit as I didn’t think I was so harsh with my words or opinions. After giving it a second thought, I decided to go ahead. If for nothing else, then to encourage the conversation and make people think about:

  • the unhealthy amount of advertising in our lives,
  • the impact on our behaviour and online experience,
  • as well as the effect on our privacy and data we share with strangers.

Advertising has come a long way.

It got closer to us more than ever before. Often it feels, the advertising is with us every step of the way, including bathroom breaks. Yes, that’s right.

It has mastered the skills of a chameleon. We have advertising served daily, multiple times, in every shape or form. The closer to us, the better. The ultimate goal is to have advertising served on the palms of our hands and to be with us in our sleep, occupying our subconsciousness.

There are some moments when I see an ad and think to myself: “Damn, you guys know me”, although sometimes I doubt it.

Like that time when YouTube served me an exclusive ad for the funeral insurance. Are they trying to tell me something? And no, I wasn’t checking anything even distantly related to coffins or death.

At the same time, I think: “It is getting a little bit creepy. Hold on, I just spoke about this to my friend.” Mostly there are occasions when I am thinking: “Why the hell do I see this, again!”

Do you know what happiness is?

While advertising experiences missteps on the way, it got one thing right.

“Advertising is based on a simple feeling called happiness. It can tap into our secret desires to satisfy our needs or solve our problems.”

A few weeks back, I joined a virtual class on how to kickstart your online business & brand. One of the most important lessons I took from it were these words:

“People don’t want to buy a lamp; they need a cosy place to crash and chill.”

The above words describe the essence of advertising in the most accurate way. At least for me. After all these years, it still amazes me how good advertisers have gotten in tapping to our purest feelings to spark our desire and create the need to ‘own’ things. In many cases, we might not even really need them. Advertising has the power to invent the want. And the more it reminds you that you need something, the better.

About healthy boundaries and our experience

Can you recall the feelings you have when you reach a tipping point, whether this is after too much of your favourite food, drink or even activity?

Every single time I visit a site where I have to navigate through the army of pop-ups, scroll-fixed videos or some flashy display ads, my only reaction is: “UGH, not again!”

I just want to read an article, learn a new recipe or watch a video without being interrupted. In approximately 90% of cases, I end up leaving the site. If you have to encounter advertising tens or even a hundred times a day, it starts to slowly, but surely get on your nerves.

Let’s not forget about the impact it has on the overall user experience and slow loading time. Who will refund me for the time loss on every occasion I need to close pop-ups or mute the sound that is coming from the video advertising I can’t even see!

There is such an amount of ads poured to our online stream these days that one has to ponder:

“Are advertisers looking into building relationships with brands’ true fans or customers? Or has advertising turned into an avalanche of useless spam and data chasing?

I’d like to keep exploring new products, services or experiences, but on my terms which has been a bit of a tricky matter.

Nothing in our culture is for free.

While adopting an ad-blocker or browsers that shield you from advertising are reasonable steps forward, they won’t solve the entire problem.

First, the experience is not always smooth. I stopped counting times I have seen ‘you shall not pass’ pop-up or occasions when I have to switch off my privacy shield to get the site load (or even log into) in the first place. These are only a few reasons why users leave the so-called ‘private mode’.

The access to a website was blocked due to Adblocker extension
The access to a website was blocked due to Adblocker extension

Let’s be realistic; no browser will provide you with complete privacy. Hiding from advertising is not easy, and it will never be for one simple reason.

In the present-day culture, we are the most important product.

If advertisers can’t see us, can’t make us click, convert or just follow around, how would they get what they want, our data and behavioural insight?

So trying to escape advertising is more of a side-effect.

What many people seek is more privacy, better experience instead of being an easy spam target.

The truth is, our access to information is not free. The fee we pay every single time to access any sort of ‘free content’ is our data and privacy. Who has time to read all the long and mysterious blurb when you want to read one article? Instead, we just click ‘Accept’ and move along, leaving a digital trail everywhere we go.

The incognito mode won’t help you to hide.

I have started digging into the topic of advertising and privacy only recently, but one thing is clear. Complete privacy & anonymity on the internet is exceptionally challenging, and it is a thing of the past.

Cross-site trackers to track user behaviour mapped by Brave browser
Cross-site trackers to track user behaviour mapped by Brave browser

We live in a world where your data is clickbait away. We might be able to get rid of cookies or hide in incognito mode, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t leaving a footprint to follow our online trail as we happily surf the internet.

The amount of trackers companies use to follow you in an attempt to create your web profile, and the journey is astonishing. While many can be useful, it’s good to keep in mind that data can be used to manipulate your behaviour.

What can we as users do?

The moment you start figuring out how to limit advertising and get at least part of your privacy back, it can get overwhelming. So where to start?

Regardless of the browser, you are currently using; it’s always a good idea to keep its hygiene in mind. Clean your cookies.

The next step will help you to declutter your online experience. Install an ad-blocker. You have plenty of options; the choice is yours. I decided to stick with this one. Don’t you enjoy reading an article without pop-ups and ads?

Try researching browsers that offer a higher level of privacy mode or enhanced tracking protection, such as Brave, DuckDuckGo or Firefox. As mentioned earlier, the ride with these might not be smooth from the beginning, but you’ll get there.

Last note. You don’t have to be a genius to understand that to improve our experience, learn, solve problems and create new things, we have to collect, understand and use the data.

The question is, could we do in better, less intrusive ways?

How about moving away from annoying & useless to impactful advertising; moving from quantity to quality; pulling away from false advertising and creating real customer based relationships; creating & supporting more advertising-free platforms; pushing for more transparency around data storage and usage. Can you imagine that people would get paid for the fact they share “their” data?

How many platforms would survive if their income and demand depend on creating content and providing an online experience that gives users a real added value? How many users would be willing to pay with existing budget limitations?

As online users and consumers, we have the power to impact and change the way companies, handle our data, track behaviour and shape the future of privacy and online experience. Even such a small thing as learning about your options on how to do so is a good start.

I enjoy researching different topics, occasionally, I’ll turn them into articles.