Written by 5ivecanons Staff
Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Google+, Vine and Youtube are as common in the 2014 as pay phones were in 1995.
With developing countries quickly gaining access to social media, vast amounts of user habits, preferences and behaviors are being recorded to extrapolate buying habits, attitudes and even creditworthiness. The process has been dubbed “big data,” and many companies are collecting your information, and that of many others, to aggregate and sell. Big data is the collection of large amounts of raw user information to analyze, interpret and package for businesses to use in marketing, advertising and selling of products or services.
The trend shows no signs of slowing either, as a recent survey conducted by Pew Internet and American Life Project reports, 72% of Americans are now on social media as of late 2013. More people are on social media, the trend isn’t just stateside.
Connecting and sharing with the world has never been easier, and social networks analyze all those interactions to determine user habits and behaviors – and not with the sole purpose of connecting you with friends. Sean Parker, the cofounder of Napster and Facebook’s first president explains it best:
Facebook isn’t helping you make new connections. Facebook doesn’t develop new relationships. Facebook is just trying to be the most accurate model of your social graph.
Social networks make money from advertisers who want to sell their products and services. They accomplish this by using tracking cookies that report the sites users have visited – even when those users are not logged into the social network site. There is no reason to believe that these social networks want to abuse or spy on user data – they do however want create an advertiser-friendly environment that makes it easy to target individuals with ads. This means that social networks are actively trying to discover what uses like and dislike.
Almost all major retailers, grocery chains and investment banks, even the U.S. Postal Service, have a ‘predictive analytics department’ used to interpret not just shopping habits but also personal habits. In 2012 retailer Target’s customer tracking methods were exposed after the upset father of a teen complained to a local Target manager about the baby clothes coupons being sent to his daughter. The father stated to the clueless manager that the coupons might give his daughter the wrong impression. The manager knew nothing about the information but later called the father to apologize again. Surprisingly enough, the father had an apology of his own – his daughter was indeed pregnant.
Retailers such as Target want to learn more about their shoppers to build brand loyalty and trust. So they track users with unique numbers linked to debit and credit cards, rewards cards and even cellphone MAC addresses. Retailers keeps tabs on everything users buy and also determine demographic information such as age, marital status, number of children, address, store distance, estimated salary and the websites visited.
Technological advances are giving retailers analytic tools comparable to those of social networks. However, some quickly draw the line between online activity and real life. They believe there is a major difference between generally anonymous information and an identifiable person.
According to a New York Times Article, government agencies also use social media to track users. The IRS is said to search several major social networks for evidence of tax evasion. The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services uses Facebook to verify marriages and family information. The issue here begins when service providers deny users loans, or jobs based on comments, friends or photos posted on social networks regardless of financial history. Currently, there are no regulations in place to prevent these kind of evaluations beyond setting your profile to private.
The short answer is nothing come free. The developers, graphic designers, writers and hosting all cost money. We are paying for all these free services with our data. There is one interesting catch: most developers and companies don’t know what to do with all the data they’ve collected.
Data can be found everywhere, and it seems that everyone is after it, so it must be worth thousands, right? Well, our data isn’t worth much unless it is combined with the data of millions of others to extrapolate trends and conclusions. It turns out our information isn’t very valuable after all. When a data company got caught snooping out consumer’s history, data that recorded names, email, phone numbers and shopping preferences, the amount they payed for 400,000 users was a paltry $2,500.
At this point it’s pointless to try and live under the radar. The reality is that big data can be very helpful. Every time Google offers you a recommendation, displays an ad, or displays search results – it’s basing those results on big data and personal data. Everything you and millions of others have searched for, information you’ve you’ve submitted is analyzed. These queries make our digital identity and place us in a categories. It seems that with all this optimization, targeting and analysis, the internet is only getting smaller for users, and discovery, freedom and spontaneity are being lost.