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I see it now: A layperson’s eye opening to the current state of personal data
A few years ago, a friend of mine gifted me a palm-sized Betty White refrigerator magnet. It wasn’t my birthday or a holiday — she’d just…
A few years ago, a friend of mine gifted me a palm-sized Betty White refrigerator magnet. It wasn’t my birthday or a holiday — she’d just seen it in a small bookstore and knew I’d like it. I did. I’ve fancied Betty White for years. And I love gifts like this, the kind that show that your friend really knows you.
If feels good when someone knows us.
Social media gave me that same feeling for a long time. Here are platforms that make it easy for me to connect with old chums from past jobs and find organizations doing work I care about. They’ll even serve up advertisements for cross-country skis just when I was thinking about buying a new pair. They knew! How sweet.
These platforms employ thoughtful little algorithms that cater to ME — the topics I love to talk about, my hobbies, the stores I shop, the movies I watch.
I didn’t mind that they took note of my likes and comments or surveyed the pages I followed in an effort to serve me up more stuff they thought I’d be into. It felt like a friend buying me a Betty White magnet. They knew me.
But over time, that friendly “hey, I found this thing you might like” started to get weird. It got “I’ve been reading your diary and surveilling your home while you sleep” weird.
If you use social media, you’ve likely had this experience, too. And, like me, you’ve chalked it up to the price of using those apps. Yea, it’s creepy, you thought, but these apps are so fun, I can’t imagine being without them! (Maybe you have a friend who’s dated someone for similar reasons.)
Besides, gathering up some of our user behavior is no big deal — we get free content and entertainment! And if I’m going to see advertisements, I’d rather they be for things I might actually want, right?
If that were the whole of it, maybe we could continue on as usual, clear about the trade we were engaging in.
But it isn’t.
My awareness has deepened over the last year, despite the fact that I was perfectly content to remain unaware.
When I began working with the TIKI team in the spring of 2021, I appreciated their mission to give users ownership over their data. It’s a no brainer, really. I don’t like the idea of big corporations profiting from my data any more than the next person. But I also wasn’t about to do anything about it. What could I do anyway?
But as I went about the business of creating content and learning from the TIKI team — Mike and Shane and Barry and Anna — and reading the news stories the document the current state of affairs, it became harder to shrug off the reality.
Sure, it’s long bothered me to know how Google, Facebook, TikTok, Amazon, and so many other apps track every digital move we make. Such deep sourcing of user data has been well known for a while.
But to hear how these companies exploit that information — not simply to get us to spend money but to steer our behavior, manipulate our emotions, and get us to think, do, share, and vote in specific ways — well, that’s a whole other realm of garbage.
If all that sounds like conspiracy theory to you, I get it. I felt the same way. Or I wanted to, because it was easier to continue on unbothered by the idea.
But TIKI doesn’t believe in shrugging it off. And neither do a growing number of people in the U.S. and around the world. Watch the news, read the stories, get a quick glimpse into the profile Google has developed for you.
It’s uncomfortable. And if it feels invasive, that’s because it is. And companies aren’t doing it just so they can buy you a Betty White refrigerator magnet.
What are their aims, then?
“(Former Facebook data scientist Frances Haugen) told Congress that Facebook consistently chose to maximize its growth rather than implement safeguards on its platforms, just as it hid from the public and government officials internal research that illuminated the harms of Facebook products.” [via NPR: Research shows Facebook coveted young users, despite health concerns]
“Each video a kid watches, TikTok gains a piece of information on him. In a few hours, the algorithm can detect his musical tastes, his physical attraction, if he’s depressed, if he might be into drugs, and many other sensitive information. There’s a high risk that some of this information will be used against him. It could potentially be used to micro-target him or make him more addicted to the platform.” [via New York Times: How TikTok Reads Your Mind]
Now that ticks me off.
There’s a lot of suspicion about what these apps are doing. Most of us have experienced that eerie sense that our conversations are being listened to through our phones — and we’re not okay with that. But what ARE we okay with? Where is our line in the sand? Do we even know, or are we content to just keep browsing and clicking and liking and not caring what the ramifications are?
“As we’ve reported, Instagram and its owner, Facebook, don’t need to listen to my conversations to figure out that I’ve got a drawer dedicated to ill-advised hobby equipment. Neither do other giant ad companies like Google and Amazon. They already have my search history, in-app interactions, past purchases, online profiles and favorite websites, and they share that information with advertisers for a price.
“In that sense, the audio-targeting debate is a good excuse to ask yourself where you’d draw the line in terms of companies and governments peeking into your life. How much surveillance is too much, and who should get to decide?” [via Washington Post: Ask Help Desk: No, your phone isn’t listening to your conversations. Seriously.]
I struggle with these questions myself. A whole lot of my life is on social media. There are elements of these apps that I love.
But my awareness has grown. I’m paying attention. I’m learning. And I’m confident I still only know the half of it.
But that’s enough to shake me up.