Most of us know Moore’s Law: the number of transistors on circuit board will roughly double every 18 to 24 months. While this number has not held absolutely firm, it is the fulfillment of this prediction that has led to the exponential increase in processing power and storage of our computers. These computers have led to an increase in the amount of data that can be processed in any set period of time, but perhaps as importantly, it has led to the ability to create a small enough computer that it is always with you . . . the phone.
Online communications isn’t new, but the ability to never be more than a few seconds from the network has made it so we can communicate and express ourselves at any time.
If you are active on Twitter, you are likely to create in the range of 1000 “what’s happening” tweets or more appropriately “what’s happening, interesting or valuable” data points a year. Those 1000 tweets result in over 10,000 words. Those words can be linked to the time posted. If you include where you are tweeting from or use a social check in service like Four Square, your location is thrown into the equation. Even if you don’t share this information, there are ways to track locations in the photos you share. Follows, followers, retweets and @ messages then produce a social graph of who you are connected to.
With just those data points, the who, what, where, how and sometimes why, can all be determined. Every tweet might not provide that information, but with a click of a button and less than a second, all your Tweets can be examined with modern computers.
The value of all our 140 character tweets has not gone unrecognized.
- Hedge funds are using this information to trade and make millions.
- Political scientist can determine our political orientation with a high degree of accuracy by just looking at who we follow and who follows us. Jury consultants are likely to use a similar approach.
- Some corporations are tracking everything that is said about their products, their competitors’ products and even . . . everything that is said by their targeted demographic.
- Klout is tracking almost every active Twitter account in existence and updated results on a daily basis using these signals.
You might not think Klout is very advanced yet, but they are just an example of what a publicly facing startup can do with a couple million dollars. They now have full access to all tweets, they are updating almost every active account on a daily basis and they are providing a meaningful metric. Influence is just one of hundreds of metrics that will eventually be based on our social media usage. If Klout can figure out how to use our tweets to determine influence, other metrics won’t be far behind.
While I don’t care if any one person or even a thousand look at my tweets one by one, I am uncomfortable with the idea that I am providing the entirety of my tweets to any organization who can pay a couple hundred thousand dollars a year to Gnip (one of Twitter’s preferred data resellers), and come up with algorithm to turn my tweets and everyone else’s into a detailed personal profile.
A consumer product company marketing to me based on my interests is the least of my concerns. These profiles could be used to target vulnerable individuals for scams, exclude people from participating in juries, decide how credit worthy a person is, decide if someone should be hired or fired and used to profile individuals based on their political beliefs. And unlike credit bureaus that have some minimal level of accountability, many of these metrics will be developed outside of the view of the public, making it impossible to monitor or opt out of them.
The ideal solution to all of this isn’t clear. Private Twitter accounts aren’t trackable, but if we all go private, the Twitter experience will be lessened. Twitter has yet to find a way to make money, and not surprisingly data is their most desired product at the moment. At this point, I would much rather have multiple ads, then have all of my data sold to preferred Twitter partners, who can then sell that data to whomever they choose.
Working with corporations, I understand that they are often slow to act. This inertia will keep them from acting quickly on our individual data, but well-funded, focused independent organizations and even governments are already understanding the value of this information and taking steps to use it.
It is possible that this issue will gradually come into the public conscious, and if enough outrage exists, there might be more clear regulations on social media data collection.
While I wait, I will continue to use Twitter. It is too valuable a communications platform to give up on. But I am going to give serious consideration to making my account private.
Do you have any thoughts on ways to maintain data privacy while not hindering the power of social media? I continue to struggle with solutions and am very interested in your thoughts.