Risks, Rights Questions in Social Data Mining

A listener of mine tweeted this Technology News piece on emerging practices in mining social data. None of this tremendously surprises me, I have a couple of friends who work on projects in this new frontier. There are also antecedents from e-commerce, simpler cases of how online retailers chose to analyze and use emergent data like product views and abandoned shopping carts.

My first thought in response to this piece is that leaving as much discretion to users and consumers is key. It is significantly harder for a marketer to convince an active social networking user to share some information with their network. It is far less creepy, however, than such a marketer observing data from one point in a social graph and using that to spam that person’s network of friends and acquaintances based on it. The key may lie in convincing businesses that the reward of a genuine recommendation or referral far outweighs the lesser return on the shady, second approach.

Sadly, the cynic in me thinks that the existence of spam points to us always having to deal with those looking for a cheaper, quicker returns, enabled through the sort of automation the article describes. I hold out hope that we’ll grow similar defensive systems like we’ve had to do with email. Unfortunately, given the semi-public nature of social networks and messaging, I think it is going to be a great deal more difficult. Worse, we are already playing catch up.

The conclusion of the article, discussing new rights for users and consumers, is strong. I wished it had called attention to other efforts around improving the handling of private data and clarifying expectations. The FTC has been working with industry in a system for badging some of the practices the article describes. Aza Raskin of Mozilla also recently discussed augmenting privacy policies to make them more understandable and to hopefully improve accountability. I think we need to move a whole hell of a lot faster on this front as the technology on the other side, the potentially invasive and creepy stuff, certainly isn’t standing still. The more time it has to become established, the harder even simple labeling schemes are going to become to implement.

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