Monday, 9 August 2010

Digital Profiles

Having just received my Tesco Clubcard vouchers, sad but true, and having just browsed through my social circle as generated by Google through your connections on chat and buzz, it got me thinking about your digital persona.

It wasn't so long ago that data protection had people in a spin about companies using your personal information to build profiles and data on you. We were livid at the idea that companies could 'buy' your stats including some potentially very private and confidential stuff. As a child of the internet age, putting information on the internet was not so daunting, as we were all savvy enough to have online profiles, managed email accounts, and knew which box to tick that said 'NO' to data sharing and consistent spamming.

To briefly illustrate this, after letting my mother loose on Hotmail and MSN (Gmail wasn't around then) she quickly got to grips with the idea of emailing and instant messaging. That's not to say she didn't use the most backward of practices to perform simple tasks - but hey, she got it. What she didn't apparently get was that every time she signed up to a service or newsletter, she was missing the all important 'tick here if you do NOT wish to receive updates and information from third parties... blah...blah'. She moved house. She had to set up the phone and broadband from scratch as it was a new build. No problem, it's not like we haven't moved like 20 times already.

Not so apparently. Despite the fact that she had simply mistyped the confirmation code for kick-starting her broadband subscription, but that is not the point of the story. I signed into her emails for her after about a month of waiting for an Internet connection, as it was driving her mad. Explaining how to disable her proxy at work so that she could access Hotmail just wasn't going to work.I created her account, so no bother to sign in, delete the crap and forward anything of importance to her work account. When I got in there was over 700 unread emails. Now to most people, this would be very normal after a month of inactivity on your account, but to a 50yr old woman who emails no more than 7 friends, and does little other than sign into Amazon, Travelzoo and TheAA Routeplanner this was insane. Every website she had ever clicked on, signed up to - spammed. So I did the honourable thing, and not only deleted the spam, but went through and unsubscribed her from everything I knew she hadn't intentionally done so herself. *Phew*

When I told her, she was shocked. As someone who just assumed that when you have an online email account, SPAM was all part and parcel, she hadn't realised that she had been tapped data-wise and has consequently learned to read those all important T&C's and tick boxes a lot closer. A procedural process to approve the use of data sharing on B2B levels, but interesting to see how many people it still fools. And as a consequence, you suddenly have this 'online persona' based on all of the information companies have cobbled together about you from shared data. And how obtuse must this data be!? 

We all innocently sign up to services that might not be in our 'typical' interest of business pattern, but for whatever reason, we do. It may be for a new venture, for a friend, researching a new project, or just via some indulgent web browsing. So when this data is farmed from company to company, business to business (assuming you forget to tick the all important tick box), it gets seriously warped in terms of the 'online persona' it has created for you.

Some of this is obvious in sites such as Amazon, where you get an 'Amazon recommends' section. Hell, I have bought most of my friends and families' presents online for the past 10 years, and I sure as damnit will never be buying the second in the serious to 'You'll Never Walk Alone, The Anfield Anthology' or getting another set of bird decorated gardening gloves, or a pair of MotoGP beer holders. Ok - they were for me - but you get the idea. So in this sense, what benefit does this profile generation do for your shopping, browsing, researching experiences online? I would argue very little.

To return to my opening line - my Tesco clubcard. I held a themed party last month - Kenya. I bought no end of Casava chips, Tusker beer, cashew nuts, Maize flour, coconut milk and other non-typical shopping items. There will have been other instances similar to this over the months accrued in between Clubcard vouchers being dispatched. So what do I get as my  'bonus point' vouchers? 25 extra points when you spend over £1.00 on blah-blah-brand bombay mix, 25 extra points when you spend over £2.00 on canned confectionery... etc etc. Great. Cheers. So if I want to reap any of the benefits you are offering me for the next two months, I'm going to have to throw another ***** Kenya party. And lo and behold - I'll probably get another set of vouchers next time singing the same tune. This extends to your 'favourites' basket in online shopping and more.

Which brings me to Google's social profile. I have just analysed mine, and it's nothing less than rubbish. I'm not particularly bothered by it, as my social media has built up in a way that I am a) nearing saturation and b) very happy with the separation of the streams via my various accounts and feeds. My social media works with me not against me. However my Google social profile is.... odd.

I tend to use my Google chat for work purposes. My MSN is reserved for family members, old school IM'ers and those few that just couldn't care less about developments in web connectivity. Fair do's. I have the typical overseas peeps on Skype, a whole list of university and business associates on Linked In, and of course twenty seven different email accounts and servers for all my million guises. They have been condensed, and I have in the past disabled and created new accounts where I can see a better way of structuring my connections (a SERIOUS task in itself), but ultimately I am different things in different places. My one sole unified presence across my accounts is my partner, of which appears to be the only one of my connections to be socially active on such platforms as to afford a Google social profile. As such, my Social profile has turned into my partner's world. Weird. And needless to say wildly inaccurate. 

How do you then build a profile on a user based on their connections/past interactions/account history? My thoughts are two-fold.

  1. You can't
  2. You shouldn't

I think I have embellished my thoughts clearly for point 1, so to discuss why I believe you shouldn't. Firstly, I find it a very backwards way of working which is misaligned with the ethos of the web. The web has exponential possibilities and capabilities, and by carving out a consumer on what they did yesterday, last week, last year is completely devoid of intelligence. Surely by pigeon holing, stereotyping and forging consumers into one particular model, businesses are limiting the potential that this person has to buy their new products, join their new networks, develop a new web service or just try something different. With my illustrations of how wrong an online persona can be, and how the marketing that is then poured at this person is most likely to be barking very loudly up a very large tree, isn't this whole idea a complete and utter waste of time?

I'd be interested to hear some success in the field, as unlike the poor stereotypes I have pointed to here, I'm open to suggestions! I will, however, be stuck with my Kenyan food themed Tesco offers for the next two months, so if anyone is interested in them - let me know. Just make sure you don't get pigeon-holed for it later.

Trending... now there's a more interesting idea...

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