On the one hand — and this is certainly how the marketers eying all those tasty bits of data would like you to think of it — you are engaging in social expression, you are singing to the world with your own individual song made up of pop culture references and color preferences. You are bonding with that cousin in Colorado, that sister-in-law of a friend, or even your bff. You are finding the gems of the Internet and sharing them. For me as a writer, I’m (or at least I hope I am) continuing to build and deepen my fan base, so they’ll buy my books.
But the other hand is more sinister. You’re providing marketers with your data, telling them how to most effectively sell to you, letting them know what images, what songs, what memes have resonance for you. Talk about the ultimate consumer survey – this one’s as long and exhaustive as you care to make it. Everyone who uses Gmail (and I’m one of them) has more than once been spooked at how the ad in the sidebar seems to target exactly what you’re thinking of with a precision worthy of a Twilight Zone episode. Imagine if every ad getting served to you is precisely tailored to convince you that you need that particular thneed.
This worries me. We are imperfect creatures, our brains are easily tricked, and subliminal tricks can be played upon us. Oxytocin makes us more trusting, advertising surrounds us on an unquestioned daily basis, and we are, after all, predictable and manipulable creatures.
Or what would a game tweaked to our individual quirks be like? (I envision something for myself filled with Amazons, talking animals, an assortment of literary figures ranging from Geoffrey Chaucer to James Tiptree Jr., and pop culture references to children’s cartoons from the late sixties to early 70s.) Such a game, perhaps one formulated with by then automated algorithms of gripping narrative construction, would be awesome.
And on that sinister hand again, it would be so addictive. I say that as someone who gave at least three night a week to D&D all through my high school years, as a WoW player since the beta, as someone who laid a decade and a half of work on the altar of the entity known as Armageddon MUD, which has eaten lives, grades, careers, friendships, and even marriages over the course of its existence. The thought of a game more addictive than that terrifies me.
So while I’m not quite so worried about my data getting used nowadays, I do have concerns about the future and how my data footprint may someday be used. So what are strategies for dealing with this concern? None seem perfect, but three spring to mind.
- I can stop using these networks. I’m reluctant to do that, because I enjoy the experience. I like looking at Pinterest pins and seeing all the pretty colors. I like being able to see what my friends are up and who’s got new stuff out that I can help promote.
- I can introduce bad data into the mix. I can introduce some contradictory things in there, like saying I like licorice or Mitt Romney. Tracking that seems odd, but I’m capable of it, much like the friend who periodically buys items he doesn’t need with his shopping Advantage card, just to screw with the machine minds.
- I can use networks with a persona. I can figure out my alternate Cat Rambo. We all do this to some extent already – no one showcases all of their bad selves online except for the truly narcissistic and deluded.
So what to do? I guess the first step is realizing there’s a problem. What do you think, am I just being paranoid and should break out my tinfoil hat or begin preserving my precious bodily fluids from contamination? Or is this something we should all be thinking about?
(And if I die under mysterious circumstances in the next couple weeks, it only confirms the corporate assassins exist…)
Enjoy this musing on social media for writers and want more content like it? Check out the classes Cat gives via the Rambo Academy for Wayward Writers, which offers both on-demand and live online writing classes for fantasy and science fiction writers from Cat and other authors, including Ann Leckie, Seanan McGuire, Fran Wilde and other talents! All classes include three free slots.