BuzzFeed denies using quizzes to mine personal data
ALONGSIDE listicles and gifs, quizzes are one of three pillars of BuzzFeed. They're addictive, shareable, and with their ever-more precise slicing of social identity, they give everyone a chance to feel they belong. However, they might also be treasure troves of personal data.
At least this is what online marketing and analytics expert Dan Barker has said. "When you visit BuzzFeed, they record lots of information about you," writes Barker on in a blog post titled 'Buzzfeed is Watching'. "Most websites record some information. BuzzFeed record a whole ton."
Barker details how alongside the more standard data categories (including where you're connecting from; how often you've visited, and your gender and age - if available) BuzzFeed also records each answer users enter into the site's quizzes.
For sillier questionnaires (eg 'What Cheese Are You?') this is harmless, but as Barker points out, some of BuzzFeed's quizzes ask deeply personal questions. One entitled 'How Privileged Are You?' consists of a series of tick boxes that users select based on whether they have ever been raped, attempted suicide, or tried to change their gender (among other things).
"If I had access to the BuzzFeed Google Analytics data," writes Barker, "I could query data for people who got to the end of the quiz & indicated - by not checking that particular answer - that they have had an eating disorder."
BuzzFeed has responded to Barker's analysis through various channels, assuring users that all the data collected is anonymized and aggregated.
Dao Nguyen, BuzzFeed's director of growth, left a comment on the blog, saying the company was "only interested in data in the aggregate form. Who a specific user is and what he or she is doing on the site is actually a useless piece of information for us.
"We know how many people got Paris or prefer espresso in the 'Which city would you live in?' quiz, but we don't know who they are or any of their PII [personally identifiable information]."
Speaking to The Independent, Barker noted that despite the fact that data had been 'pseudonymised' (ie, assigned random user IDs) "from a technical point of view it would be really easy to link pseudonyms to real users, and is a fairly common practice."
Barker continues: "But BuzzFeed say specifically they do not and, as a fairly transparent company, I would be inclined to take their word for it. It's also worth mentioning that this is a total minefield and lots of website owners don't fully understand what data they're recording.
"For example, looking at an article elsewhere on The Independent, I can see the site loads 42 different third party tracking technologies, a few of which have assigned me a unique user ID in a similar way to BuzzFeed. I'd be amazed if most staff know that's happening, let alone readers."
While all sites track their users to a certain degree, not all of them depend on the social input and interactions of their reader to the extent that Buzzfeed does. However, the site also has a far more subtle approach to monetizing users than most sites, preferring to do so via selling 'social advertising' (eg sponsored articles) rather than user data.
Barker adds: "In BuzzFeed's defense. I'm sure when they set up the tracking in the first place they didn't foresee that they'd be recording data from quizzes of this personal depth."