The Age of Data Malpractice Could be Over: a Shift in How we Understand Relationships

A Shift in How we Understand Relationships

It's not the Social Network Sites that are interestingit is the Social Network itself. The Social Graph. The way I am connected, not the way my Web pages are connected. We can use the word Graph, now, to distinguish from Web. I called this graph the Semantic Web, but maybe it should have been Giant Global Graph!

It was 2007#. More than a decade later, Tim Berners-Lee announced Solid#, a path to preserve the decentralization of the web by putting you and your data at the center of it:

Solid changes the current model where users have to hand over personal data to digital giants in exchange for perceived value. As we’ve all discovered, this hasn’t been in our best interests. Solid is how we evolve the web in order to restore balance — by giving every one of us complete control over data, personal or not, in a revolutionary way.

Data is the undercurrent of the web. Achieving “personal empowerment through data” is an apt principle for this initiative. 2020 kept us rooted to smaller spots physically. But thanks to online tools some of us have been roaming the world.

And that's why Solid and inrupt, the company Tim Berners-Lee created as the infrastructure for Solid to flourish, could be critical to our work and lives.


Transfer of value

Consider how in the last 14 years I've changed a few jobs—from corporate to agency advising colleagues and clients on all things marketing, communications, then applied to social media, web experiences, digital commerce, and ultimately culture—yet my online home here has remained the same.

More than one decade of consistently creating and (sometimes) visualizing value—like when my rudimentary graphic representing new media went viral—in one place has made Conversation Agent a vessel of that value. With RSS feeds mostly forgotten, my activities on Twitter (mostly), and now LinkedIn, continue to function as triggers along with search to transfer that value to you.

But, this is just the tip of the iceberg of my online activity, isn't it?

I also make purchases through select few stores. Transactions are the highest form of preference, but not the only valuable activity online. I belong to two Slack communities, and I talk to family and friends through Skype and Zoom. Text is for select connections, mostly to get things finalized.

Twitter lists allow me to browse by interests: industries, titles, categories I've created to group activity and get signal. LinkedIn groups, once a thriving area of interest and now de-emphasized in the quest to increase posting activity (to serve ads against) were areas of interests.

I cannot travel physically, but I can do so much more than used to be possible. For example, I just shopped for gifts to have delivered to my family in Italy.


Identity and the web

Ben Thompson has a long article about what he calls social networking 2.0. The part about Twitter incompetence is worth reviewing. Because all power users at the time saw the potential. Many of us wrote articles with suggestions about the interest graph and the missed opportunities.

Thompson mentions identities: how he can use multiple identities on Twitter for different purposes. You can create different handles to use for different purposes. You could conceivably build a media network to appeal to different types of buyers, rather than creating a corporate handle for press stuff and a customer service account for support.

I've seen companies do the customer part well, but don't know of any that are behaving like living systems and talking to different people in different ways.

As I said, identity is a lens we can use to understand the web, it drives our behavior—both directly and indirectly.

Our identity is made up of several things:

  • heritage—where we were born, where we live, our age, educational background, etc.
  • environment—transient external factors such as the economy
  • needs—they include both what we truly need and what we think we need and actually just want
  • interactions—we also define ourselves in relationship to others

We can mix and match interests moving from context to context. So in fact we have multiple identities, each aspect of us appeals to people also interested in that conversation. For example, if you're a fan of Italian Style, I created a site, Twitter list, and a companion Flipboard magazine about it.

But mainstream social networks have mostly insisted on the one identity. Which brings us to relationships.


Managing relationships

As Thompson says, the next iteration of social networking puts you at the center of your network. Messaging apps and tools where you can have different handles helped. Even as many of the tools are inadequate for us to become agents of our own experiences, there is a significant market movement in that direction.

But it takes knowing who I am in this context to connect me with the proper vessel of value and trigger to transfer value to me.

While I can tweak and adapt social networks to suit my needs, like I did with Twitter lists, companies still have very one-dimensional views of me. They just talk at based on what they've got.

Peter Drucker nailed the proper intent:

What gives life to and sustains the corporation resides on the 'outside,' not within its direct control, and the customer is the primary mover of those external realities and forces. It is the prospect of providing a customer with value that gives the corporation purpose, and it is the satisfaction of the customer's requirements that gives it results.

Transfer of value happens when the trigger is close to value for the customer. And that changes. So. it will take an explicit act from each person to actually get there. Doc Searls has been working on APIs as personal systems in the networked marketplace for more than a decade. Still a work in progress.

But what if we could shift the balance of power through data?

In the same ways we put me” at the center of our relationships, could we do it for companies' offers and products? Three decades of the world wide web and we still have system design that creates perverse incentives. Value takes a hit when accountability is not possible or very difficult.

The web, as it currently exists, fragments our data into “social network silos,” over which individual users have very little power. “They're not really webbing, they're not connecting together as peers,” says Tim Berners-Lee. These silos are ready for exploitation, “leading to increasing, very reasonable, public skepticism about how personal data is being misused.”


Connecting interest with intent

The current social networks have been mishandling our identities with the data as well. As Thompson says, the settings haven't favored a more nuanced approach. Groups, messaging, and Rooms on Facebook have been an attempt at giving people different ways to network based on interests, albeit tied to one identity.

We haven't been able to use our identity in conjunction with the interest graph. And many social networks have been copying what scaled so far, all focused on attention. Instead, the opportunity is to tie interest with intent. You don't get there through attention tricks. And there is social media fatigue. My most popular letter this year was about the social dilemma, tweaking the settings in social networks to fit your needs.

Berners-Lee says:

It's not just about privacy, it's actually about enablement. About a year ago a lot of people were writing in the business press about privacy and imagining that the user's desire is to hoard […] But when they get into Solid then really the empowering thing is about being able to use their data.

The Internet offers convenience, but as anyone who's tried to find the perfect item online knows well, it still falls terribly short.

What if we could reverse the current system? Once upon a time, we'd go to the carpenter and ask for a product to certain specifications. You'd have a back and forth, give him access to your home to see the space and get data. Today, we could put those online and companies can search for jobs to be done.

As Berners-Lee announced in an update:

The web was always meant to be a platform for creativity, collaboration, and free invention — but that’s not what we are seeing today. Today, business transformation is hampered by different parts of one’s life being managed by different silos, each of which looks after one vertical slice of life, but where the users and teams can’t get the insight from connecting that data.

Meanwhile, that data is exploited by the silo in question, leading to increasing, very reasonable, public skepticism about how personal data is being misused. That in turn has led to increasingly complex data regulations.

It should be super clear to companies that people are willing to participate in the transaction. But if we can't trust a company to use that data appropriately, which is to provide a service or product we seek, then the tendency is to believe they're the hoarder. With the data being exposed to third parties that are not part of our agreement as collateral.

Last week I went nuts trying to find a compact item for a small room in my house. I could have saved tons of time by submitting specs to a central place. Companies that make that kind of item could then search the list of customer requests and message with their item. Eliminate the extra steps, and you have true convenience.

B2B marketplaces are already configured a little like this. Amazon is attempting a version of this, but it doesn't create enablement. Figure that out, and the age of data malpractice could be over. As for social networks, Thompson is an optimist. He says:

the role for [Facebook and Twitter] will be as a bridge between attention-focused products on one side, and private interest-defined trusted groups on the other.

To that I add a maybe.


This is my work. I'm a cultural lens for reading the world. I do the work so that your work becomes easier, richer, and more satisfying. Durability comes from having a cultural link.

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