Image of blank computer keyboard with the words "BIG DATA" resting on the keys.

I Still Don’t Like This

A year and a half ago, my friend Crystal and I wrote guest posts for our respective blogs about an experiment we conducted on social media. You can read her original post on my blog here, and my post can be found on her blog here.

Both Crystal and I stopped using the “like” button on Facebook to see if we noticed a change in our news feed, or perhaps a change in how we interacted with social media. I have not gone back to using the “like” button since we began our experiment in August 2015. For a year and a half, if I have enjoyed, or disliked, or had a reaction to something in my news feed, I have taken the time to write a comment. Or, I have simply scrolled on by if I felt no real need to comment at all.

This change caused me to be more intentional with social media. Instead of my use of Facebook serving as a giant time suck, I now go to the site with the intent to catch up on what my friends and family are doing. I can’t stop using the site since my employment responsibilities include managing two Facebook pages, and I also help administer my Rotary Club’s Facebook page. Last year, I agreed to help serve as a volunteer moderator for the Disability Visibility Project Facebook page. Do I spend more time on Facebook than I probably should? Yes, but I view the site as a tool which can help me maintain connections to friends and family when I might not have time for a phone call and I am too much of an extrovert to give it up.

Then last week my friend Tonia shared an article about Big Data which I read with interest. The article, which was originally published in Das Magazin, described how political campaigns use psychometrics (sometimes called psychographics) for “innovative political marketing.” Now more than ever, it is easier for companies to use a person’s digital footprint to predict how that person will act in a given situation. I don’t claim to understand all the research, but it makes sense that data gleaned from a person’s social media feed or digital activity can be used to make predictions about that person.

For example, if you were to look at my “saved” files on Facebook (which I use to bookmark articles I want to read when I have time), you would find articles from the Washington Post, New York Times, The Guardian, and several websites for media outlets such as PBS, NBC News, and ABC (Australia, not America). You would also see blog posts related to writing and crochet, and many disability blogs. A scan of my saved articles indicate about fifty percent of them relate to disability, twenty-five percent relate to writing, and the rest are a mix of articles about crochet, baking, musical theater and dealing with grief.

Based on just this information (remember, I have not provided any “likes” to analyze), one can fairly accurately predict I pursue writing, and that either I have a disability myself or am very active in disability circles. My hobbies (baking, crochet, and musical theater) are apparent. It’s no wonder that ads for Broadway HD show up with regularity in my news feed!

But, how are all those data points used by others? What else do I see because of assumptions made by analysis of my digital footprint? Which articles are placed in my view based on my social media activity? Would it change if my online behavior changed? I will admit, I never noticed a significant change in what I saw on Facebook once I stopped using the “like,” yet it’s possible there was a difference I just didn’t observe.

Do I think I have some semblance of privacy because I choose not to use the “like” button? Of course not. My smartphone acts as a transmitter, giving apps various information such as my location, how often I travel certain routes, what I search for on Google, and how often I win or lose at Words with Friends. Sure, I could opt out of using my phone as often or restrict certain apps to gain more privacy. But I use my phone to help me manage my personal assistant staff which limits my ability to disconnect.

For now, I will continue to steer free of the “like” button. I will also probably stop taking online quizzes – because how many times do I really need to prove I am an extroverted word geek who has a vast knowledge of show tunes? I think I’ve provided enough evidence of this to Big Data, especially since I just aced the “name the musical movie from one screen shot” quiz.

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