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.