Your Virtual Self: Who Owns It and What’s It Worth?

Our data create a new form of identity, what you might call a virtual self — a concept that will determine the future of the web

Last Updated: November 4, 2013 @ 4:16 PM

Each one of us generates vast amounts of data — email, phone calls, social networking, photos, text messages, videos, browsing, purchasing and more.

Our data create a new form of identity, what you might call a virtual self — a concept that will determine the future of the web.

This virtual identity, and all of the bits of data that comprise it, has become an incredibly valuable form of currency — it’s the way the web exchanges value.

Companies aggregate your data in order to deliver advertising, commerce, content, and services to you — worth billions of dollars.

But who owns this data? Who owns your virtual self?

Right now, the identity wars are dominated by Facebook, Twitter, and Google — firms that have become what Mashable calls “large-scale consumer identity providers (a.k.a. IdP’s).”

“There’s a great burden placed on identity providers to police the media companies that connect with their users,” Robyn Peterson writes in a recent post. “There’s also a great burden on media companies to fulfill and not violate the trust of their end-users, and to behave appropriately.”

Right now, we’re all complicit in the creation of this virtual self — we use our Facebook or Twitter account to sign in to other websites, which in turn use the components of your identity to construct their content.

We do it willingly. In exchange for data about our friends, locations, interests, behavior, and preferences, we get content served to us that seems eerily relevant — courtesy of the companies whose algorithms process the bits of our virtual identities.

Of course we’ve seen flare-ups over privacy and identity, but they haven’t changed the trend for consumers to share our virtual self, which is getting pretty comprehensive.

“It represents our actions, interests, intentions, communications, relationships, locations, behaviors, and creative and consumptive efforts,” according to The Locker Project,  a non-profit start-up unveiled last week as part of a set of initiatives aimed at allowing people to have “ownership over their personal data and clear control over how it’s protected and shared.”

I love their slogan: “Data is Life. Own Yours.”

The Locker Project is sponsored by a commercial sibling called Singly, which publishes tools so that developers to create applications on top of your centralized personal data.

Even larger forces are at work in the geek community to organize around individual control of data, for instance, the Personal Data Ecosystem, a consortium that is working on creating user-centric digital identity schemes, some of which were explored at the Internet Identity Workshop, convened last week.

It remains to be seen whether these efforts to provide centralized data control for individuals will succeed, especially in light of past efforts like Microsoft Passport.

A panel I chaired at last week’s Digital Hollywood about “personalized media” added some interesting texture to the conversation.

“The virtual self is statistically and behaviorally quite different than your physical self,” said Leonard Brody, president of Phil Anschutz’s Clarity Digital Group, which runs, a hyper-targeted news site. Brody is writing a book on the “virtual self.” Too often we focus on the qualities of the real-world self, not the virtual self. One example is privacy.

“I think that privacy is a generational issue,” says Brody. “The way I think privacy will be governed going forward is in a much more personalized basis, much the way you handle your privacy settings on Facebook.”

Privacy concerns vary culturally, as well as generationally, noted Paolo Sigismondi, a USC professor whose book The Digital Glocalization of Entertainment was just published. He notes that Facebook is being sued in Ireland over privacy issues.

Adds Greg Duffy, CEO of Dropcam: “Facebook’s product is not its website, but the users who use the website, which they sell to advertisers. Facebook naturally wants to invade your privacy a little bit. The question is whether you care.”

Dropcam sells WiFi cameras to monitor one’s private life — kids, dogs, parents. This is content that people still want to keep private, at least today, he says. But cheap sensors, computing power, broadband and storage means that “everything everywhere is going to be recorded, adding massive amounts of video to an individual’s virtual self.

“Personalization and targeting is creating a shift from interruptive marketing to interactive engagement marketing,” says Justin Nassin, CEO of VideoGenie, a firm that matches consumers with relevant ad campaigns featuring videos of similar consumers.

Dirk Brown. CEO of Pandoodle noted that personalization is the engine that drives monetization for producers and distributors. “Advertising is becoming hyper-targeted,” he said. “Our approach is to hyper-target product placement, rendering it very fast. The next generation TVs are Internet based. When you watch TV, the media experience will be hypertargeted, with brand placement inside the shows you watch.”

According to Brody, it won’t just be marketers who will use your data. Professional sports teams will shortly permit fans to determine in-game decisions via mobile apps, he says.

“Thirty thousand heavily engaged fans making decisions about players — who goes in, who goes off, is statistically extremely relevant for things like what happens on the field, like trades and valuations of players, so I think you’ll see how user data will become incredibly valuable in professional sports.” It’s a statistical field known as predictive markets, and for sports, it could be like “Moneyball” on steroids.

Brody noted that to succeed, there needs to be a very narrow and specific decision that generates large amounts of data. That’s why an attempt to fully “crowd-source” a UK soccer team called Ebbsfleet United failed.

Crowds are not a reliable source of data that drives targeting either, says Daniel Punt, VP at AnyClip, a company that serves up video and movie clips based upon links between a user’s data and the metadata associated with the video.

“User-generated data tends to be very poor for anything an advertiser would use,” he said. “It tends to degenerates into name-calling, lots of spamming, and weird inside jokes. The data is not useful.”

Meanwhile, the tonnage of clicks and other actions we take online — sometimes referred to as “big data” for obvious reasons — drives innovation in digital content. Indeed, big data has become a buzzworthy market, as the NY Times’ Quentin Hardy notes here, and questions whether it represents yet another tech bubble.)

I don’t think so, if the range of start-ups leveraging data-mining algorithms is any indication. A good example is Sidebar, which is developing personalized TV experiences driven by use of multiple streams of real-time data.

Sidebar CEO Patrick Kennedy, who used to run digital at Sony, is convinced that most people will welcome what he calls a “personalization engine” that can help make sense of the flood of content that’s available in an ever-expanding ecosystem of digital media.

So we are left with the digital age version of Hobson’s Choice. If I want the convenience and delight of innovative, screen-based experiences, I have to get over my queasiness about surrendering data.

For most digital natives, and a rapidly growing number of the rest of us, I think that line has been crossed.

For others, like many of my non-geek friends, usually of a certain age, they’ll opt-out, or at most just tiptoe with great apprehension onto Facebook or the social web. Folks who dislike disclosure, sharing, transparency and living in public may never wind up sampling the tasty Kool-Aid of new media fun and wind up outside the conversation entirely.

As a non-native digital addict, I’m heartened by things like The Locker Project that want to provide tools for people to take control of their digital identities —  action, rather than just whining each time Facebook or Google go too far.

This strikes me as similar in spirit to efforts like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the open source movement, and Creative Commons.

I for one am grateful to these idealistic geeks who formulate deep technical solutions premised upon user empowerment, rather than regulation or technophobia. They’re contributing something that the rest of us aren’t smart or visionary enough to do when we encounter the seemingly intractable problems of the digital era.

What do you think about the future of the virtual self.

Do you want to own or control your own digital data?

Or is that too much of a hassle compared to the astonishments that lie ahead, thanks to our digital Hobson’s Choice?


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