How we’re *not* tracking people using News With Friends

Nobody wants to be tracked online. We’ve been wondering why social platforms collect so much data if it upsets their customers.

After looking more closely at what standard mobile analytics packages collect we decided News With Friends is going to be different. It doesn’t need to track everything everyone does on the platform.

So, we’ve added a no-tracking feature called ‘Hide’.

People who login for the social features have the option to use it without sending any data to our servers. It means we can’t see them at all. Their usage data doesn’t exist.

There’s an obvious question this raises, “What’s the benefit to the platform if users are giving nothing in return?”

First, that’s the wrong word. The term “users” sets the stage for the relationship you create with your customers. Nobody wants to be a user. Second, that’s the wrong question. The right question is “what are you offering people and do they want it?“

Clearly, anonymity means certain business models won’t work for platforms like this, such as personally targeted display advertising. So what. A healthy network of people who recommend things to each other is a much more exciting proposition. We don’t need to be excessive personal data collectors to make that kind of business model work well.

More importantly, times have changed. It’s the right thing to do.

The way the Hide feature works is simple. The app checks to see if it is allowed to trigger analytics events for a customer before sending their usage data through to our analytics tools. If they have chosen to ‘Hide’ via their Settings screen then the app doesn’t send anything. Nothing is recorded. There is no data about the person at all.

When people are hidden they still have the option to invite friends, accept friend requests and to suggest stories to friends. When triggering an action related to a friend we have to send that data to the friend. But that’s all we know. In fact, we don’t know it for long because that data is gone once it is sent.

We don’t know what they’ve been doing, what they’ve been reading, for how long, or from where.

When we do add a commercial model in the future it will be based on the network forming here and its unique characteristics. We will design it in a way that doesn’t care if our systems know if, when or where a user is reading news.

We’re very aware that the ‘Hide’ feature is a risk for us as a business. It makes things challenging that used to be easy. We’ll struggle to understand session durations, repeat visits and that sort of thing. And it may come back to bite us some day in a way that we didn’t see coming. But this is the kind of thing we want when we use apps and platforms ourselves, so why not offer the same thing we expect from others?

We want people to understand that News With Friends is different. This is a space they can trust, a place where people can feel connected to what’s going on in the world without being observed or judged or, worse, manipulated by anyone.

In these times of over-targeting and misuse of personal data we think the economics have changed. Platforms need to trade on integrity more than engagement. We may be in a new era where digital businesses have to optimise for utility over personalisation – the winners will do more for people with less data about them.

This just is the beginning. Fully embracing this way of operating is going to require some work. So, this is the first in a series of privacy features we plan to implement. Keep an eye out for more privacy features coming to News With Friends.