Username and password

Online registration

Why do we have to have an account for everything we do online?

Like everyone in the connected world, our consultants each have usernames and passwords for their many online accounts.  How to keep track of them, much less remember all details, is a non-trivial task.  Why are there so many?

Of course if we buy something online the seller needs to have enough information to be sure of being paid.  Filling in all the information for a credit card is, in this context, reasonable.  But just about every seller we’re aware of either requires, or strongly suggests, setting up your own account, meaning a username and password together with some other data.  (A few allow purchases through a “guest account,” grudgingly.)   If there is a reason given, it’s normally that making further purchases will be easier for you.  And that’s indeed part of it, for the easier it is for you to spend money, the more likely you are to do so.

But the real value in a personal account is that it gives the seller information about you, and information is money.  Analyzing your past purchases and whatever other details you provide, the seller can customize ads and offers and other pitches so you’ll be more likely to respond.  (And your data can be sold to other companies for an instant cash return.  This is supposed to done only with your consent; but did you read all the terms and conditions when you signed up?)

Indeed, this sort of thing was done in the Old Days before online shopping.  Our consultants recall being asked for their addresses even when making cash purchases at a local store.  That sometimes resulted directly in junk mail, but could also provide information for the overall marketing strategy of the store.  Even now, the tourist attractions in Alexandria ask for zip codes from people who visit, no doubt to work out the proportion of people who come from far away, and other details.

It’s harder to find a direct justification for other accounts.  But information is still money.  Social media may not actually charge you anything.  But the information you put there is used to direct ads your way, and for other less transparent purposes.

It’s hard, though, to come up with any good rationale for certain online accounts.  Consider the human resources website for a large company.  In the past, all of us at Five Colors have applied online for jobs, which always requires setting up an account with username, password and a full population of personal details.  If unsuccesful for one job, you can use the account to apply for another, which is a sort of convenience.  But you have set up a permanent account for what is, you hope, a one-time use.  If you use it very much, you are (paradoxically) exactly what they aren’t looking for, and thus wasting your time.  Most job-application account activity is inevitably by people who will never be hired.

We suppose, though, it’s convenient for the human resources department.

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