You're Part of the Study

In the wake of the recent anxiety storm over Apple and Google’s collection of data through phones, the chatter about privacy and data mining rose by a few dozen decibels, as well it should have. As consumers who seldom think beyond convenience and entertaining gadgetry, we need to fully understand the flow of information that affords us those services. But the piece I found simultaneously most fascinating and frightening was this piece in the Wall Street Journal, “The Really Smart Phone.”

Discussing the unexpected social trending that can be interpreted from smart phone data, the article includes this paragraph which I found chilling:

“And back at MIT, scientists who tracked student cellphones during the latest presidential election were able to deduce that two people were talking about politics, even though the researchers didn't know the content of the conversation. By analyzing changes in movement and communication patterns, researchers could also detect flu symptoms before the students themselves realized they were getting sick.”

Reading this piece left me unsettled, and I was still sorting through my thought process when my husband pointed me to a talk By Deb Roy on the TED Network, The Birth of a Word.

He sent me to this because as a speech pathologist I teach parents about language acquisition and that was – at first – what the talk was about. But at the halfway point the talk diverges. While analyzing staggering amounts of data to learn more about how the social use of language influences its development in babies, a researcher on the team muses, “You could do this same sort of analysis on a larger scale using social media as the sample.” (I’ve paraphrased here.)

For the first time in history, massive amounts of social discourse are being frozen in time. Our thoughts, feelings, ideas and conversations are being preserved in digital amber for analysis. And as bloggers, we are contributing to this real-time fossil record in staggering quantity.

I think we know and don’t know this at the same time. We are cautioned: “Once it’s on the internet, it’s there forever.” Even if you pull down a post or delete a tweet, it’s still there, indexed and stored. Perhaps not easily visible to the casual searcher, but certainly unearthable for those who know how. So we try to remember to commit to that which we are saying, to be authentic, to control temper when we can in order to avoid being smacked upside the head with a poor choice of words or regrettable action later.

But that still leaves unimaginable amounts of information sitting there, communicating about us. 

When we write or tweet or post on Facebook or leave a comment, we’re leaving an opinion out in the open. We are creating transparency about our decisions and our habits. These are not things we concern ourselves over being troubled by later – no one is going to fire us for choosing to go to Disneyland instead of the Grand Canyon on our vacation. You’re not going to be refused entrance into a graduate program because you tweeted “I voted!” That’s not the impact of this information.

The impact of this information is more subtle, and potentially more frightening. This data is being analyzed to assess our society as a whole. What do we do? How do we make choices? What words create the largest ripple effect? What television programming causes the biggest reaction? What percentage of people seem to change political affiliation over the course of an election? What is the national reaction to an international leadership change?

Lots of people out there are taking our pulse. They are taking it through the blogosphere and other social media outlets. They’re taking it by watching how we move and when we talk. They’re taking it by watching traffic and analyzing keywords. They’re taking it by monitoring data flow and searching for content spikes.

And what makes me most nervous is thinking about what this data can tell those who know how to read it.

Do I care that people can tell that Forever 21 is gaining momentum in the under 20 buying demographic? No. But do I care that an organization is trying to figure out what type of content makes people change their minds politically? Yes I do. At the point where decisions can be predicted, they can then be manipulated. And in an era where I am already having difficulty assessing the truth of a message and frustrated that “news” seems to becoming less friendly with facts, I worry about how accurately someone will be able to influence choice when they understand so thoroughly why and how we make those choices. 

While this can be compared to political spin and marketing analysis that’s existed for decades, what is new is the scale. Polls have been around since people could ask questions, but the manpower required to take a good poll meant the impact had finite limits. The sensitivity of marketing had a ceiling because focus groups take time and money. But manpower limitations are almost a thing of the past – data analysis algorithms don’t need to be paid to mine for information. They just do – which means that all of the Twitterverse is a sample and all of the blogosphere is participating. The more data in a sample, the more sensitive and reliable the findings. We are handing those who do this type of analysis an unprecedented sample – not just in size, but in activity to be analyzed. This means that the predictions that can be made and the decisions that can be influenced become more focused and far, far more accurate.

As someone who blogs, tweets and happily plays with her phone in ways that communicate the who, what and where I am, I contribute to the ocean of sand that is being sifted through. I have a post scheduled about Macy’s this week. I tweeted my irritation over the Obama birth certificate drama. In a few hours, days, weeks or months, those words are going to be part of giant, public database that is being combed through by tools I can’t even see. And someone, somewhere is going to start sharing information about the tides that affect me and the millions of people who are similar to me in some significant way. And that makes me nervous.

Because in truth, I’d rather have someone know something about just me, Lori, than know that people who are like Lori will be influenced by specific types of information. Lori can’t do too much damage by herself, but a whole population of Loris changing her minds about policy can. And if the information that makes the population of Loris change their minds isn’t authentic, then the evolution of that population isn’t either. 

Lori, speech pathologist, writer, and business owner, blogs home-family-working-mom drama at In Pursuit of Martha Points.

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