It’s not just mobile devices where working and private modes have merged. I still use PCs and browsers a lot, though I have read that I won’t for much longer. Even my laptop remains less ergonomic than the fat-finger keyboard connected to my trusty tower computer and 24” monitor (itself a simultaneous gift and sight risk) so I still research and write mostly on my home PC, which is carefully backed up.
You may prefer a different mix; mine has introduced me to a split existence, literally and ironically. In real life I am employed to learn and report on several topics of data and information management. My private life, equally real, is my own business - though the gods of algorithms keep trying to help me out with that.
They are taking a variety of approaches. At the risk of stating the obvious, I’ll start by blaming Google’s AdSense and other online services that follow you around like needful pets. I like pets, just not everywhere I go.
So when it’s Saturday and I am checking in with my buddies at an old car website, or looking for bike trails in my area or reading a friend’s blog, what banner ads do I see? Well, this week I see ParAccel Big Data Analytics, LogiXML embedded reporting and a few others whose sites I have coincidentally visited lately. I have nothing against any of these companies. Plainly, I follow them and dozens of others during my professional work week.
What’s jarring about the experience is that the less influential a website is, the more likely you’re going to see Google dropping in on your free time, since club and community sites are less likely to be advertiser supported and can earn bits of revenue from AdSense. I just have to say it, it’s incongruous to look up a recipe for the leftovers in your refrigerator while being nagged overhead to check out the latest in semantic data technology.
For all the sophistication being brought to the table, it can feel like they’re poking us with a pretty blunt instrument. For example, a friend asked me to look into a costly car repair she thought might be specific to her car’s brand and model. After I reported back to her that I’d read similar complaints from other owners online, the same carmaker placed banner ads before my eyes for the next 48 hours trying to sell me the very car I’d investigated, not the sort of reminder you’d imagine they’d intend.
Yes, I could log out and kill all my cookies - which would scrap some of the convenience I like and just set off a rebuild of my profile. On that front, a friend passed along a TED video showing how your Facebook behavior or your Google profile will affect what you, versus another user, sees during visits and when searching. (In the example given in the video, Facebook, for example, screened out a user’s conservative friends because it concluded algorithmically that he preferred liberal views.)
I’ve tried to recreate this “filter bubble” at Google without much success, though when I am logged in I get more local results for buying things than when I am not. Also, Google has been very insistent to ask for my cell phone number when I log back in so they can send me my password “if I forget it.” They make it tricky to skip this step and there’s no option for me to tell them to stop it, so they must want it pretty badly.
It’s hard to read a news story these days without being reminded what your friends think about it. Even posting a comment has been a fearful exercise of not knowing where else or in what profile it will show up in. Like recommending a song you just heard, it’s less fun to explore when another person beats you to something you’d want to be the first to know and tell your “real” friend about.
Now we’re enlisted to create decision automation noise as well as consume it. Especially since I work for a publishing company, I was initially impressed and a little threatened a couple of years ago when I first saw the website paper.li offering free daily personalized newsletter publishing. Create a one-time profile and boom, you can generate, populate and post a whole daily rundown of content based on your social media behavior that can be tweeted out to followers automatically and be emailed to anyone who subscribes.
Out of curiosity I’d set up my own newsletter, the Jimericson Daily and in just minutes was generating a fancy layout based on all my own activity. Wow, I thought, until eventually everybody had started doing this and we’d all seen the same stories and become mundane. We’d all become needy pets of a sort, always around and no longer fun or especially interesting.
I never circulated the Jimericson Daily but didn’t cancel it either, and it still comes irregularly. I did notice last Sunday’s edition in my inbox nicely laid out as always with lots of stories I recognized. The top entry was James Glanz’s strange data center expose in the New York Times that, for starters, accused operators of being huge polluters because of their backup diesel generators - without mentioning whether they had been run or how much pollution they’d actually caused.
Sure, I had read Glanz’s story, but I wouldn’t recommend it, and thanks to an algorithm, here I am leading my own newsletter with it. It occurs to me now that the best thing about the Jimericson Daily is that I’m the only person who receives it.
Oh, and did I mention there are a lot of other Jimericsons out there? One is the former CEO of a large insurance company who’s unpopular with some of his ex-employees; another is a city planner; another is a basketball coach. There’s also a Jim Ericson marketing guru, a realtor and a photographer by the same name in Hawaii. LinkedIn has 23 of us and we also pop up at dating sites and in obituaries. Just following myself around makes me feel like a narcissist.
In one way we can be grateful that big data and social behavior will keep us attached and employed for the foreseeable future with plenty to write about and might even launch a new Bureau of Analytics & Unintended Consequences which I would be glad to head up. But I’m also learning that just because you study the changing environment around you doesn’t mean you’re not also part of the food chain.