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Online Privacy: “Me” Versus My Metadata


You Do Not Exist.

That’s a hard concept to grapple with, but in many ways it’s true. At South By Southwest yesterday, the panel tackling online privacy the panelists spent a great deal of time discussing online privacy within our current framework for such discussions – “my data is me”.

One panelist went so far as to suggest that your metadata had an assessable value. He suggested that you should have full control over it and went so far as to suggest that you should be compensated for its use.

That prompted me to tweet the following:

Your individual information has no value. Only in aggregation does it gain value. Nobody targets “you”. They target the characteristic.

That led to a bit of chatter on Twitter and some discussions with people there. Most of those forums weren’t really sufficient for really fleshing out the idea, so let me explain.

First, you should understand that the comment was made in the context of privacy and targeted advertising. My friend Paul actually took the concept in a completely different direction and has been pondering the value of individual Twitter content versus the collective. It’s an interesting take, and one I’ll think on. For purposes of this post, however, I’m talking about targeted advertising and your personal data.

You golf. You eat at various restaurants. You travel. You buy things. You have credit cards for certain stores. You are a collection on indivisual characteristics. In typical psychological analysis, those personal characteristics could probably be described as the self. The “self” is very important to our conception of the world.

In the world of digital advertising, however, the self is irrelevant. Those characteristics are meaningless. Unless you are buying very, very expensive luxury goods, there is a high degree of probability that no advertiser is targeting “you”. No advertiser will run an ad campaign with the sole purpose of getting “you” to buy their product. There is simply no economic benefit to limiting your audience to one person.

They are, instead, targeting a collection of characteristics that you happen to have, and characteristics you share with many, many, other people. Your concept of protecting “your” metadata, then, is illusory. There is nothing of value to protect.

How can that be, though? Advertisers will pay a premium to reach me based on that data. So clearly my metadata has worth.

I’m Unique, Just Like Everybody Else.

Advertisers devlop a profile of the person likely to buy their products. That information is matched against consumer information databases. If your profile happens to match those characteristics, those advertisers will deliver an ad unit to you.

However, they’re not delivering that unit to “you”. They are delivering it to a random identifier in a database which matches a random set of variables they found important.

The problem is our sense of our own identity is tied inextricably to that random set of variables. When people use it to communicate with us, we fell manipulated – we feel like big brother is watching us.

I followed up my first tweet with another that read:

A noble goal would be to get people to divoce their concept of “me” from the individual characteristics that comprise that.

I say “noble” in the sense that we hamper our ability to get the most out of the digital world when we cling to these antiquated notions of “self”. The benefit of the digital world comes from the aggregation of data, information, and creation. We recognize the wisdom of crowdsourcing movements and creating in a collaborative environment, yet we resist the aggregation of information for the purpose of making advertising more efficient.

I, for one, welcome a world of targeted advertising. I may never (at least until I’m 50 or 60) have to watch another Viagra or Cialis ad. I may never see another dancing mortgage calculator.

It is ironic that the value of your personal data, and your control over it, was argued at a conference on digital media. The panels at SXSW spend a great deal of time discussing corporations and the fact that they must give up “control”.

That takes many forms. PR practitioners must give up control of their message. Intellectual property holders must give up control of their creation. Network owners must give up control of their networks.

Despite this, we cling to the notion of “our control” of our data based on the flawed notion that it has value – on an individual level – to anyone but us. As I said, our metadata has no value in the singular. It is only in the aggregate that the information means anything to advertisers.



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Written by Michael Turk