Saturday, 12 November 2011

The incremental commoditisation of me by social media

It's happening, folks. You are being commoditised more and more effectively by your social media providers. It starts with an innocent "Location data cannot be found" message line in Twitter, suggesting to people viewing the tweet that there would be nothing more natural than the person who tweeted adding their location data. In fact, it started a long time ago - in 2007, in my case, when I first signed up to Facebook - when the social media platform of choice asked for my date of birth. This vital piece of data has spawned an industry. My cousin complained on Facebook recently that all her ads in the sidebar were for wrinkle creams. "Why do I want wrinkle cream ads," she cried. "I've got a mirror!" Anyway it turns out that what she wants are quite other things. This means that the model fails if the only piece of data is your date of birth, which leads to the conclusion - no doubt one reached by social media managers everywhere - that more data, not less, is required to really, truly, effectively deliver targeted ads. It means, of course, a type of Big Brother that not even Orwell could have dreamed up.

This morning while I was innocently scanning my Facebook feed I noticed some action items in my right-hand sidebar. Facebook wanted to know if "these photos were taken in Sydney CBD?" It actually wants me to confirm, directly through an interface action, that the photos I had loaded - god help me - two years ago, were taken in a specific place. This is just further evidence that social media is after more and more of your personal information so that they can increase the value to their advertisers of your attention.

This kind of ploy on the part of Facebook is like encountering bucket people on the street or in a park. "Have you got a minute?" the young man wearing a branded T-shirt might ask, as he approaches you armed with a clipboard. "I just want to talk about logging." If you waver, he'll move a little closer. If you stop walking you're dead meat. I subscribed to a credit card in a shopping centre one day under these circumstances. Shopping centres are full of these bothersome people. What you want is to find a toilet and there they are, sliding out into the stream of foot traffic with their branded T-shirts and clipboards and smiles. "Just want a few minutes." No, thanks.

This kind of sly activity is getting worse, too. Another piece of intrusive marketing-data gathering by social media is the "Social Reader" exercise that Facebook is now embarking on. You might see a list of stories in your news feed, next to the dinkus of a few friends. Click on one of these stories - which the friend had recently read - and you might be directed to a signup page where your permission is sought to access certain pieces of personal information, such as date of birth, or 'likes'. Now, the simple act of reading a news story online is able to be tracked by Facebook, further improving the quality of your personal behaviour profile and further enhancing their ability to market you around to advertisers like a bunch of sentient spinach.

And it's not just social media that wants your data. I had the experience recently of updating the operating system on my smartphone. There was a massive glitch which caused me to spend half and hour on the phone with a technician. He took me through the process OK, but when the phone eventually started to boot up successfully we shifted apart slightly in our intentions. The phone wanted to geotag everything. "No," I said into the receiver as this item appeared on my phone's screen. "You want that," the technician said. "No, actually, I don't want that," I insisted. "OK," he said, as I moved on to the next setup item. The desire for information about you is insatiable, it's constantly evident in small requests for location data, date of birth, confirmation of the accuracy of a computer's calculated surmise.

And where will this quest for total knowledge about you, end? There's no way to know. Just as Orwell could not know that Big Brother would not be an all-seeing political leader but, rather, an all-knowing computer database, we cannot know the future. What is certain, however, is that new uses for your information will emerge in future. You cannot know how your profile will be exploited. All you can be sure of is that it will.

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