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Making Sense of the Social Data Deluge

February 10, 2011
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I’ll be the first to acknowledge that data is central to what I do. Whether it’s optimizing my tweets based on how many people click on the links to determining how hot a story is based on how many people hit the comments, I’m constantly making decisions based on social analytics. My data usage is pretty basic, mostly based on free tools like Backtype and Hootsuite, but Tuesday’s social analytics panel—chock full of PhDs and data scientists as it was—offered a much more sophisticated discourse.

 

There was plenty of discussion around the cool stuff we can learn and discover once the mounds of data already being collected is properly organized and indexed. But what I found truly fascinating was the debate around what essentially amounts to the “social contract” of data collection. We all love free apps, but is it OK that opting to download one signals an implicit OK to send all sorts of data to the provider? And how much do we trust these organizations to keep our data safe and not misuse it once it’s collected.

 

This may give away my millennial status but I’m generally OK and even actively willing to share my data—if I see the benefit. That can mean anything, from a discount from a group-buying site that tracks my buying habits to status on a social network that makes me declare all sorts of information about my daily life. And Tony Jebara, the chief scientist and co-founder of Sense Networks (he’s also an associate professor of Computer Science at Columbia), says he’s seeing that mindset more and more. “My hunch is that this data will start flowing very freely, very soon,” he said. “People want that value. They’ll start to volunteer their data and opt in, and there will be lots more apps.”

 

As a marketer, this can really mean some exciting potential. It’s the ability to get an intimate view into the life of a mass of consumers, fine-tuned and pinpointed to suit our exact needs. But it also means we assume a level of responsibility to protect, and not misuse, that data. It’s hard to forget the numerous flare-ups around Facebook apps that mine and misappropriate user information, and it’s the quickest way to mar your relationship with customers. “What we need is a culture that encourages responsibility around data,” said Jamie Daves, a cofounder of ThinkSocial and venture partner at City Light Capital.

 

Once you get past the dark side of data collection, it offers plenty of potential, not just for marketers, but for science and society. Hilary Mason, a data scientist at bit.ly, offered some optimistic predictions for a more intelligent future. “We could eliminate cognitive drudgery, repetitive tasks, organizing information, data recall,” she said. “We’re moving in that direction on the consumer level. Then it’s a question of what’s next when we have that intellectual luxury.”

 

As a marketer, you’re probably excited about what you can do and learn with data. But as a consumer, are you comfortable with how much organizations can know about the most mundane details of your life? Or is it worth it, if that somehow makes your life easier or more convenient?

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