Personal data, value and social networks

It’s Monday morning and here I am, my thoughts and ideas being put together and shared for free. Why not? You may well ask. Why should this not be so? And I have a couple of answers there that might interest you. The first one is very much a 21st century, co-creationist, open-minded one: I think that the traditional way we calculate value is narrow-minded and outdated and we really ought to find fresh ways to do it. Ways that empower not just ourselves but those around us. This builds relationships (even if we are not aware of it), creates connections, unleashes the power of shared information and the shareability of its results and creates a fluid, evolving matrix that makes us all smarter, more capable and better informed than ever before in history.

The second one is more traditional. I spent upwards of 100 hours a week looking at data, analyzing business models, going through books, articles and reports. I talk to people who are in charge of running multi-million dollar corporations and I talk to managers who run teams that work in the challenging digital and offline marketing environments. I look at consumer reports and I pour over sales reports and marketing data that has been confidentially shared with me. I put all those things together in a way few other people can, not because I am smarter but because I am more fortunate in the connections I have, the clients who trust me and a lifestyle that allows me to more or less balance everything in a way that works.

When I share an article freely, as I am doing with this one now, the reader gets insights, expertise, time and effort that in the past would have had to be paid for. Now it is made freely available. Yet the effort involved in creating hasn’t got any easier. If anything it has become more delicate, more time and attention consuming. More intensive at a cognitive, instead of a physical level. 

That is the knife-edge of social sharing we are all balancing on, regardless. The average person surfing the web for fun and consuming a piece of information (like this one), will have to make a whole number of complex decisions when it comes to sharing it that will include: 

  • Which social network to choose. The decision there reflecting his digital socioeconomic profile and the nature of the online connections he has made.
  • The kind of introduction that the post will have. Here he will reveal his intent, knowledge, background expertise and understanding of the digital medium and his actions and, in the process, invite those who see it to make their own judgement about him.
  • The real reason he is online. Biases and interests are revealed in the choices of content we choose to share and the reasons we choose to share that content, for.
  • The value he places on his reputation. The conversation, engagement and reactions that will come from the conscious decision to share a piece of content and his subsequent response to all that reflect whether he really cares about what he does or not.
  • The value he places on his personal data. Who sees what, when and what happens next reveals an entirely new layer of metadata which goes on to become the assessment layer of validation of a person’s digital presence and, ultimately, online and offline identity. A piece of content shared that ends up in a vacuum is not going to ever do anything for anyone. 

Of all the steps mentioned above the last one is, arguably, the most nuanced. Everything we do online is trackable and subject to analysis and a lot of it is actually tracked and analyzed. Whereas we could, in the offline world, hide in plain sight because our interactions, involvement with others and degree of engagement with everything was localized and hard to get at and hidden amidst a thick tapestry of background noise, online everything is crystal clear. 

This brings us to the interesting question of personal data. 

In most cases, when we decide to share something we have some understanding of what will happen. We may, for instance, choose to share something with “Family and Friends” (yeah, I am talking about Facebook) in which case we should expect those connections, dear to us, to be mined by the world’s largest social network which will also use cookies to track what we do while we are logged in and what we do and the sites we visit while we are logged out. It will also use cookies to track each of our friends and relatives and even those we are not associated with that choose to see and then interact a little with the content we shared. And yes, Facebook will benefit from all that data as it uses it to sell us to advertisers for a price and sell advertisers to us, for its own benefit. 

Or we may choose to share it with the world (which means Twitter or Google+) and the decision, in each case, is also hugely reflective of choices, values, knowledge, skill and intent. 

Do we benefit from all this activity? In some cases, like in Google+ we end up building strong personal networks and wider, weaker ones that allow us to enjoy a higher online profile, find out more information, get access to some great people and learn more, think smarter and grow, emotionally and intellectually, faster. But that is a side-effect from being there and using that particular social network in a particular way. It is not something that is spelled out or even guaranteed to work for everyone. 

Yet everyone will reveal personal data and make it freely available online. 

Creating a More Balanced Relationship

The technological platforms that power social networks are hugely expensive to set up, develop and maintain. That cost does have to be offset somehow. Our personal data is how it is done. But maybe there has to be a more symmetric relationship between ‘us’ the consumers who are also the publishers of all this content that makes everything possible and ‘them’ the entities behind the social media networks that benefit directly from our activities. 

There are two three elements at work here that make this imperative: 

  • First, while a social network platform is extremely expensive to set up and maintain, over time, as it grows the cost per member, proportionally drops at an exponential rate. It takes way less to acquire a new member and entice him to be active in the platform than ever before.
  • Second, changing technology makes the set up and maintenance costs ever cheaper. Data centers become easier to maintain. Scale allows new efficiencies to be created and the accumulation of data allows new ways of monetization to be put in place.
  • Third, over time each social network member’s nuanced activity becomes ever more valuable as data about them accumulates. The initial acquisition cost is recouped and the member’s activity begins to generate pure profit. 

These are part of the maturation process of the digital landscape and one of the reasons the value of personal data is being looked at by in more detail.

It also became part of a discussion started by an Open Letter written by Leonard Zack to Mike Elgan.

The questions regarding the value of personal data, online privacy and just how much control we have over what we do are only now being asked in an intelligent, coherent way. Once we clearly establish what we stand to gain in a more measurable, measured way we can then begin to feel more like citizens of the digital landscape.