Friday, May 18, 2012

The Information Highway is Watching

You open up your gmail account or even your Facebook account... and you see a listing of suggestions: advertisements to something you were looking for, or maybe sent an email to your friend about this product/service and now you see a brief ad. Or better yet, you get a listing of people to add as friends on your Facebook account. But by golly, this seemingly inert website is... reading my mind??

Today, Facebook had their largely anticipated IPO. But, what exactly is Facebook selling? Like many people, I have an account and I sign-in regularly and check status updates about people I know, see what's new and then log out. Not once have I paid a penny, to use their services. So, what exactly is the big hype about Facebook?

Welcome to "big data". Big data is essentially gargantuan data sets that are difficult to work with by traditional database standards. We're talking in the order of magnitude of zettabytes. I can't even begin to fathom how big that is.

Going back to our topic of the Facebook IPO: how does this relate? Well, Facebook recently launched their "timeline" theme and I am pretty certain (I refuse to change over voluntarily--I'd rather go kicking and screaming) that the information goes as far back as the day you signed up your account. I was one of the early users back in 2005 or 2006; it's been 6 years and there are currently, over 901 million users. That's 13% of the world's entire population. To further put this into perspective, Canada's population is around 34 million, the US is around 312 million, China is at 1.33 billion and India is 1.17 billion. That is a lot of users on one website, who are probably checking in on a daily basis.

As it stands, Facebook's main source of revenue is through marketing. Why would that be surprising? It's not. Afterall, the amount of information they have on each member is vast and likely quite detailed. They'll know your sign-in habits, your social circles, your vacations, your feelings and moods, your likes, hobbies... they're even able to customize a lot of their marketing bits and suggest to you, new friends whom you're likely to accept because they probably got it right!

There is so much data that they have access to, that it's kind of scary how much they actually know about you, without you actively permitting this information to be shared. You think it's private and safe but Facebook does technically own anything that you put up there. And since they're out there looking at how to make more money (now that they have their IPO out), it's going to be time to hire some more data miners/architects who know how to manipulate this massive "big data" that Facebook is sitting on and in short, start taking over the world!

Well, maybe not taking over the world per se but imagine the amount of information they have access to. Many companies are currently already digging into their mines of data and getting involved with their customers on a more personal level without actually needing a person to actively review each account. There are probably a bunch of algorithms that are created and inserted into their program and ta-da: instant personalized advertisement.

Check out this article about big data and how Amazon is using it in their marketing:

I don't know if this is all bad, or if it's all good. Some conspiracy theorists might consider this a wolf in sheep's clothing while others may consider this a godsend tool to best exploit efficiencies. While most groups/companies are likely just trying to make money, who's to say that they won't start manipulating you needlessly to make a buck? Afterall, the road to hell is paved in good intentions. Do have the enough self control and common sense to know better and then make a conscious effort/decision? The argument's still out but I know I still like to have most of my personal life and habits to stay strictly mine...

(Next theme/topic: photographer Ed Burtunsky)

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