In all things human, education

There’s a problem with data.

No, not Data from Star Trek, with his emotion chip. But data. User data. Your data. My data.

The trail we leave behind us as we fritter along our merry away on the web, facebooking, linking, posting, lurking, and tweeting.

Have you ever noticed how those ads that crop up next to your google searches are uncannily similar to sites or products that you’ve looked for before? “Customized for you!” Google or Amazon may boast, as if mining our data is for our own convenience. Here’s the quandary that Jessica Reyman explores in “User data on the social web: authorship, agency, an appropriation” (2013): we have user content and user data.

While owners may have some tenuous right to their content (the blogs we create, photos we post), ownership is by no means cut and dried (check out this article where an artist modifies and sells other people’s Instagram posts). Sure, we have privacy settings which seem to restrict how our content may appear to the world, but most of us fail to understand these settings fully or use them appropriately. However, beyond our user content (the obvious stuff), we participate and help create another layer of information. And the ownership of this user data (the information trail we generate through our clicks and web interaction) has been appropriated and used by corporations without so much as a how-do-you-do.

“Although users are aware of the content that they are generating online…many are unaware of the additional, hidden act of contributions of data made with each participation.” – Reyman (2013)

Corporations may argue that this data is simply a by-product of user interaction (and why shouldn’t they have the right to it? After all, they created the platform upon which its being created). However, Reyman argues that this “social web” is a “dynamic, discursive narrative” that is impossible to create without the users themselves. Therefore, users should have some say in how it is managed.

Also, the use of this data by corporations and governments can have real-life consequences for users. Big Brother is indeed watching. While the information may be used for something seemingly innocuous (like suggesting books on Amazon), it can also have grievous consequences for individuals who live in societies where they may suffer persecution for their interests (think politics in more restrictive countries). Arguments have been made that user data could be used to track criminals, which is unnerving in terms of its privacy and legal implications.

Where do corporations stand on this issue? Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg argues that “privacy is dead,” a convenient position for one of world’s largest holders of user data around. You see, this user data that we create is very valuable because aggregates information across populations and can be sold and used for marketing and sales. (Which is why I see “yoga retreats” crop up on my google searches.) Creepy?  Well, a bit. But we must also acknowledge that corporate interests are the engine of innovation in a capitalistic society. Would the web have been created so quickly without the incentive of cash reward?

Historically, the money grab comes first, and the regulation and protection comes after. Think of the industrial revolution and the rise of labour laws. Working conditions and hours were horrific until capitalism was curtailed by government regulation. Well, now we are essentially in the wild west of the internet, just beginning to wonder if we need some sheriffs. Entering into a conversation about user data is part of a larger emerging discussion that has emerged about privacy, ownership, and usage. As can be seen in Obama’s “net neutral” stance, the role of government in regulating the web and its information is just beginning to emerge.

Perhaps we will decide ultimate that Zuckerberg is right and privacy is simply the cost of doing business. However, to make this decision, we must first wake up to our participation and start to contribute to the discussion. In other words, we have to recognize that we are meaningfully contributing to a huge network of information generation every time we click the mouse.

“We should seek more fair and ethical practices that make data collection transparent and that openly recognize the value of users’ data contributions to the co-creation of digital culture.” – Reyman (2013)



Reyman, Jessica (2013). User data on the social web: authorship, agency, an appropriation. The National Council of Teachers of English.  

Photo courtesy of Creative Commons.

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Showing 6 comments
  • zhongrui yao (Ray)

    Hi, Rachel

    I enjoy reading your post a lot. You had thoughtful ideas about the privacy, legal issues, and money regarding user data produced online. I totally agree with you. Most users have not realized their contributions to the web data. Most of us just click the agreement without carefully checking every sentence, and least care about what data we will produce. For example, when I signed up for the Amazon, I did not check every sentence in the agreement. And I think I can deal with it when it send me recommendations. But you are right we as customers should protect our privacy, and make a joint decision about what data we could reveal to the public. I remember that I once gave a bad comment for one online store in China due to some reasons, the owner for the store kept bothering me until I left a good comment for that store. Finally, I left a wonderful but fake comment for that store. Your post reminded me of this case. I am thinking we really should take a role in deciding what data we will reveal to the public.

  • Gregory

    I agree with you and Reyman that there is a general lack of understanding about what data is collected and how it is being used. For instance, when all the Snowden stuff happened a few years back, people started realizing that “Big Brother” was indeed watching. My reaction was “of course they are!” All our tech is perfectly capable of collecting massive amount of data. I’m tech savvy and interested in educational data mining, so I understood this for a long time. So we need to create a more data literate society.

    Ideally, this will help us to not vilify large scale data collection on the web. Ads are annoying, sure, and we do have to address ethical concerns. But there is so much good we can do with large, detailed data set. We can better understand the intricacies of the world and how things relate to each other and work together. We an use data to make predictions and solve major problems. I’m not sure if we discussed this yet, but Google is able to predict the spread of the flu through user data better than the CDC’s typical methods do (Ginsberg et al., 2009). I personally want my data to be out there so that it can help improve society.


    Ginsberg, J., Mohebbi, M. H., Patel, R. S., Brammer, L., Smolinski, M. S., & Brilliant, L. (2009). Detectin influenza epidemics using search engine query data. Nature, 457. doi: 10.1038/nature07634

  • Rachel

    Hi Gregory – what a great counterpoint to the fear about our data being read. I suppose the question comes: do we trust the companies who are collecting it to use it ethically? And what do those ethics look like? Who gets to decide?

  • Rachel

    I absolutely click “agree” on almost all of these sites. Now that we easily use our google, facebook or twitter accounts to sign up for other accounts, it begs the question of, “who is talking to whom? And what about me are they sharing?” I love your point about the store in China, as it also calls into question sites like Yelp where customers supposedly leave comments for the public. Are these comments really from the unbiased public, or have they been bought or coerced?

  • Greg

    Trust is a key issue, and I’m glad you brought it up. For the most part, I trust the companies that have access to my data, such as Amazon, Facebook, and Google. These are massive corporations, and I’m sure there is the potential for them to abuse their power, but they have shown me that they can, in general, be trusted. Additionally, if they did do something unethical, they would feel the effects from millions of people. In other words, I for one welcome our Google overlords.

    There are companies I don’t trust with my data though. For instance, Zynga, the Facebook game developer, is a company I don’t trust because they can and do use my data to learn about my friends and relationships so that they can market to them. When Amazon sends me ads, it is at worst annoying to me. But if Zynga harasses my friends, I feel bad because it affects someone other than me. Ethical behavior is in the eye of the beholder, and in the case of Zynga, I cry unethical.

  • Amy

    I recently posted on privacy issues in terms of the content of our posts and publications and data collection is just another facet of issues that come up in our technological age. I have ad-blockers on almost all of computers so it is easy to forget how much data is collected based upon my internet searches. However, every so often I will receive an all too perfect email about travel to a country that I was just exploring online. In these moments reality comes crashing back to me, although I’m constantly aware that my online movements aren’t private by any means, it can be a rude reminder when these types of things occur!

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