These days, it seems there’s always a breaking news story pitting big data versus privacy. Cambridge Analytica and Facebook occupied the most recent spotlight in this trend – dominating the headlines and even forcing a Silicon Valley titan in front of Congress. While the debate about how best to protect personal privacy in a data-driven digital world continues, we can’t help but wonder: Has big data made our individual worlds smaller?
The dot-com boom and early days of the web unlocked a treasure trove of information. As digital infrastructure increased, so, too, did our access to information. With a few keystrokes, we were transported to new places. As technology advanced, photos gave way to videos. Skype and FaceTime visits replaced letter-writing. Social media connected us to friends and loved ones around the globe in an instant, and advertisers took notice, capitalizing on the newfound connectivity.
Despite the current controversy over how data is collected, shared and used in digital advertising, global citizens continue to live online every day, sharing more information about their behavior and their preferences with unnamed data-miners. And the data-miners continue to use the information they gather to feed us more content based on prior online behaviors. It’s all quite digitally cyclical.
Clearly, our online behavior labels us. Analytics can identify us as parents, pet owners, home-owners and renters. It can detect political affiliations, travel aspirations and fashion choices. The boxes we are placed into help control the content pushed out to us. In many ways, this can be extremely helpful, pointing out useful new products or experiences. However, there also is a somewhat unfortunate, limiting effect not often considered. What new content do we miss out on when so much information pushed to us is tailored to our existing interests?
As we catch up to the many algorithms that dictate the content we’re sent, we often attempt to regain some content control by filtering what we consume. We may purposefully follow (or block) brands on social media. We may even subconsciously visit the same websites constantly for information. Between our own filtering habits and the data-driven content being presented to us, we limit ourselves to just a few topics of interest, thereby restricting our access to new and exciting information on topics we don’t usually entertain.
Despite having unprecedented access to information, we continue to consume the same content, read news from the same sources and send our e-commerce business to the same retailers.
Our individual worlds have shrunk dramatically from the days of flipping through magazines or newspapers and discovering interesting, off-the-beaten-path stories. While government and private business argue over data-sharing policies, maybe we should exit our everyday browser and visit a new website. Better yet, pick up a newspaper or magazine and turn the pages. There might be a whole new world of untapped, thought-provoking topics for your digital feed.