If you’re not paying for the product (You’re our product)

Noticing how one idea for a post begins and watching it become something completely different after a new idea or perspective gets introduced is an interesting process.

This post was going to be along the lines of what the author-publisher dynamic meant to me. Being an Editor in a small publishing house means these relationships are absolutely crucial for the success of our business; this may also have been the start of a presentation I was due to deliver in Corfu at an international information law conference at the end of this month. But that’s all changed now.

Instead, I’m taking a different tack; I’m betting it’s something that is familiar to us all: the way social media has been woven into our lives. I use social tools everyday (at home, work and on my phone) and I wouldn’t be coining a new phrase by saying “how did [I/we] ever live without [insert preferred social tool here],” or that we really are “living in interesting times,” what with all the sharing and accessibility these tools promote.

But how exactly did we ever live without electricity and running water? And isn’t every time interesting for those people conscious enough to know that they are the ones living through it? I would hope so.

What I think is most important about these “interesting times” are the new levels of accessibility and openness we have, and just how easily most of us (not all) have this burning desire to divulge our most intimate details onto the social web. Again, nothing new, but occasionally it’s good to be reminded of this concept because it lands a little bit differently for me depending on whose in the hot seat.
This time it was “Silicon Valley Controversial-ist” Andrew Keen in the hot seat with his anti-social manifesto on the BBC’s Digital Planet. I’m becoming more interested in his ideas and I think he is someone who stands on the other side of the fence when it comes to online sharing. I don’t think it has to do with the over connectedness, but the actions we take with our personal information, posting it freely and finding out how unprotected our privacy really is – what these companies do with our data. Nothing is ever done freely online.

Keen said that the age we now live in is perhaps the biggest socio-economic shift our society has ever experienced – similar to the shift from the agrarian society to the industrial age. This is the core of his argument warning. What appears free, isn’t really free at all. Keen calls for new business models tailored to social networks.

Think about it: if you could pay a small monthly fee to access Facebook, would you? I hear you scream “NO!”…. but knowing that by paying for the service you use, provided by this newly minted public company, you each make an agreement in the understanding of how your data is stored, shared, and used (by whom)? If you’re tired of the ever-changing move-counter move/automatic opt-in terms of use, where you’re constantly having to adjust your privacy settings each time. Then a small payment might be the way forward.

Which is why I plan to read his new book, Digital Vertigo and figure out what side of the divide I fall on and the impact the commercial success of these companies is having on our experience.

So what, if anything, do we gain from living life online and in such a public fashion?

It’s a balancing act, but we really have no way of controlling how our data is used, or where it goes (unless you make the conscious choice of not having any kind of online profile anywhere). I could try to maintain my anonymity through this blog, or my Twitter feed, but would have a harder time of it on Facebook. So I’ve learned to embrace my online life, I’m taming my online self as it were, but it doesn’t work like that, because every bit (literally) shared is data. And data is the new oil.

I’m learning that I can’t treat my online life the same way I wish my physical life would go, as my ‘thirtysomething’ year old self’s experience of the world begins to influence the adolescent side of me online. I’m beginning to become more selective of what I post, or think before I share something (and where I share it), but at the same time I want you to know that I’m accessible, open and able to have my ideas challenged, which is why I don’t hide behind some randomly created avatar, and typically use the same handle across a lot of my online profiles.

And while I don’t always want to confess my darkest secrets in an online forum, I’ll keep using my social tools in the way that allows me to speak and share what I really want to share.

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