We’re at the turning point in our discussion on the blogosphere and social media.
Image: Ali T via Flickr
There used to be a guy who worked at Politics and Prose — my favourite bookstore — who knew my reading habits so well that he could recommend or dismiss with frightening accuracy. Let’s call him Bookstore Boy. There were books that he saved me from buying (and when I checked them out of the library, he was totally right — I returned them without reading them) and others that I would have never found if he hadn’t pointed them out. He introduced me to Jasper Fforde (and made the store a lot of money because that man wrote a lot of books) and kept me away from… well… I won’t list those authors here out of politeness. Mostly because what he was telling me was that he didn’t think I would enjoy those books. And he was almost always right.
I really appreciated Bookstore Boy and was amazed that he could do this for so many customers. I wasn’t the only person who got his recommendations. Somehow he kept all his regular customer’s preferences inside his brain. And yeah, I probably bought more books that I would have under other circumstances because I felt honoured that someone paid close attention to my reading habits and could pinpoint which pieces of traditional literature I would enjoy and which ones would bore me.
Bookstore Boy no longer works there. The current staff no longer knows me. It definitely has affected my shopping habits to be without his guidance.
It felt good when Bookstore Boy paid attention to me and curated my reading list, so I don’t know why it feels like such a violation when a data mining company amasses a list of my preferences using an algorithm and tries to feed me advertisements they think would resonate with me. Especially since I put that information out there. Bookstore Boy operated under a lot of guesswork as to which books would resonate with me, because he knew it wasn’t just subject matter. That the voice of the narrator played a huge role in whether or not I connected with the book. There was a much greater chance for Bookstore Boy to get it wrong, but I never minded when he stepped in to take a book out of my hands and replace it with something he thought I’d like more. Whereas data companies are merely feeding me — via ads on the side of Facebook or Gmail — what I already said I liked.
With the Bookstore Boy, it was flattering.
With the data mining company, it feels like a violation.
When Bookstore Boy told me I would like Jasper Fforde, I confidently purchased the first book on his recommendation.
When Barnes and Noble tells me that I may like this author, it feels like a stalker breathing down my neck.
Data mining companies have — on average — about 1500 pieces of information about you. Yes, you.
That’s a lot of information. There are a little under 314 million Americans. That means that they have at least 1,500 pieces of information on about 2/3rds of all Americans. And less information — but they still have information — on 1/3rd of all Americans. If you are currently an adult living in the US that uses the Internet, chances are you fit into that 2/3rds category.
And for the most part, so what? What does it matter if Barnes and Noble knows I like dystopian fiction? What does it matter if a site knows where I like to buy pizza or where I go on vacation or which activities my kids enjoy? Who cares? They can serve me ads all they want, and it’s always my decision whether I buy something. If you look at it from a helpful angle, giving me targeted ads that actually reflect my interests is more helpful than getting bombarded with a lot of noise, most of it non-applicable to my life. For instance, I like hearing about new books. If the ads I got were for new books, and an algorithm could fine tune the work of a human, somehow being programed to know which sort of books not only overlapped by genre but by type of voice… well… it would be like having a virtual version of my Bookstore Boy.
So why does it feel so damn creepy when a site essentially says — like a stalker — I know you. I know all about you. I’m watching you. I want to be close to you. What is the difference between Facebook and a stalker? Because they sort of look like the same thing sometimes. Especially once we remove the human contact afforded by my Bookstore Boy. In both cases, the goal was to move a product, sell books. But in one, I had the warmth of human contact guiding the process. And in the other, I have a cold algorithm which feels as if it takes much more than it gives. It feels like someone walking on my heels, chanting, “Buy something! Buy something! What about this? What about that? Buy!”
And amid all of this, I need to say that I get a large chunk of my book recommendation these days from Amazon’s customers-also-bought ticker midway down the page. It feels a little bit like a hands-off Bookstore Boy, quietly stating, “this is what other people also liked who liked this book. If it matters to you.”
As a side note, the Daily Dot had a post recently about privacy online that said, “If data is the most-coveted resource of our time, we should harvest and mine it sustainably.” If we harvest data too quickly, in a far-reaching collection frenzy, people will get scared and stop putting stuff online. But if we mine it sustainably, then data should be there for the taking for years and years to come. Sort of a scary thought, nu?
If we’ve put it online; if we’ve listed all sort of details on our social media sites, liking companies and checking in with our location when we go to a store or restaurant, knowing full well that it will be used to sell us something in the future, is it really a violation? And why do people call it a violation when we’ve offered up all the information in the first place and all another person (or computer) has done is pull together all the facts into one, neat document?