Big Data Meets the Search Media

By Marc Solomon posted 06-03-2012 19:36


Big data is one of those instantly graspable buzz terms. The only new ground it breaks is putting a faceless name to purposeful data capture. After all, it's not smog if the data engineers are donning masks. It's not overload when formerly unstructured text becomes normalized and assessable. And our sidelong glances are not idle curiosities now that the boundaries are down -- those partitions that once separated our personal identities from our use of a public resource.

Another reason for the lightening speed acceptance of big data lies within its meteoric rise. It’s an exponential growth is due to our bulking up on web-based spending (both in terms of digital purchases and actual time spent online). Perhaps it's the immersive nature of the web as the new default setting for our expected place in the social order. Case-in-point: I was "reviewed" today in my role as a customer of airbnb -- an aggregator of unused beds for consumers traveling without expense accounts. The fact my host had no incentive to complain about my sweaty feet (which were only a few inches from his nose) was the same realization that renting rooms on airbnb to repeat customers is his best chance at making this supplemental income his day job too.

But pointing our accountability binoculars from the summit of Mount Google does not allow for such understandings. There is little depth, clarity, or guidance around what happens to our relinquishing of our comings and goings as the single standard-bearing rite of a virtual existence. No, this is not about conformist behavior, pushback from the Facebook IPO, or the superficial nature of social media. This is the cost of doing human business from here on in and it is non-negotiable.

We can't even speculate at what's behind that one-way medicine cabinet where we preen our feathers in its presence. If Big Data was a political super PAC, a few muckraking small media types could stalk the one-percenters writing those ballroom insider checks. If we wanted an education about the extent big government will go to maintain its own privacy, we could still conceivably cable the compound of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange.

Pressing Our Like Buttons

So we're crouching low inside the belly of the big data beast. But if we guess at the types of targets that the aggregation commandos are assaulting, we might never rise from that crouch position. There are no big, prevailing public claims on even bigger private data. Unlike elections and surveillance operations, there is no implied threat posed by the concentration of consumer behavioral patterns in the hands of big data purveyors. Hacking into the voicemails of journalists is barking loudly up the trunks of some seriously wrong trees. But we're all active spectators at the Google mind reader circus. There are no hidden fees. There's not even a sales force (unless you include recent invites from friends to joing Google Plus). In effect: a complete absence of malice. What's not to like-button?

So what would happen if we walked into Big Data central unannounced:

·        What would happen if we caught one of these marketing oportunities in the clutches of the big data bunker both in-progress and off-guard?

·        What if we could go off-the-record with a big data interrogator who's sole job was to tune Google's algorithms to the point of sale (or at least the point of arousal?)

·        What inferences could we pose where they could respond with a bark, snort, or some other nonverbal signal otherwise scrambled by the sensors? Here are my top three:

Big Data Media Conference Q&A

1) What's the relationship of Google Suggest to Google Adwords?

In a gloomy and cheesy sci-fi film from the early seventies, we learn that a surplus of suicidal 99 percenters and a global famine have teamed to fashion a foodie culture of unsuspecting cannibals: "Soylent green ... is people!"

Now, repeat after me: Big data is ...? Just as personal, my friend.

The point for most of us is that we'd just assume get from the first keystroke to the last keyword edgewise with a minimal amount of guesswork. At a certain point the machine mimmicks our perceived choices and guessing patterns so well that we cease to know or care how the search media is limiting or directing these choices.

2) What's the connection between non-organic search (unsponsored links) and what Google markets to its advertisers?

It stands to reason. Most of us might be okay with outsourcing our search prerogatives. But we're not going to click on an ad just because it rises highest in the page. That would be so manipulative ... so cheapening. It's not as if my identity can be co-opted as easily as my curiosity ... or can it? Case-in-point: next time you look for all the new flavors of Spam, tell me that's not a Google link making sure that the Hormel folks understand that it was search media engineering that constructed the shortest path to their landing page. Now that's not merely suggestive. That's powerful.

The proof in the spam pudding is not that manufacturer coupons will now travel with us on all food-related expeditions. They need not await our invitation. It's that our fixations and fetishes can now be adjoined to our frequent flier miles, our GPS coordinates, and any confidences shared by the miracle of single-sign-on access -- the gateway drug to big data largesse.

3) What's the purpose of combining all my Google accounts?

Ealier this year we were told that our Gmail accounts, our Youtube sessions, our searches, and our Google Docs collaborations would all unify into a single, identifiable package and that this was a beautiful thing.

The problem is not that Google and the self-proclaimed ‘beauty’ of its new privacy policy is big brother in a barely disguisable ruse: “[A] simple, intuitive user experience across Google.” If anything Google is big bystander. Google doesn’t want to crawl inside our heads and decode our inner confessionals — that last veil of hesitation that tells us not to visit our untested assumptions on inscrutable Google.

The problem for us is that asking Big Data to protect our intentions in the cloud is like imploring Exxon Mobil to stop drilling holes in the ground. Google would be the first search media giant to tell you they are not in the business of telling us what to do. But what they trademark behind that steel trap of engineers and lawyers is the newly franchisable power of suggestion. That means that a post millennial tween who straps on her Google glasses will be free to experience that mediated tunnel of contraption-induced toolbars and pulldown menus that jog along-side the shoulders of these driverless thoroughfares. She will have no need for prior knowledge or personal experience or the need to remember her impressions or with whom she chooses to share them.

As the latest FAQ on Google’s new privacy policy intones:

“We can treat you as a single user across all our products.”

Yes, that is intended to be a consoling message to us memory-challenged users. Perhaps the real threat would have been to caveat that emptor:

Subtext: “We can treat you as a multiple product across all our customer segments.”

Now that's a constitutional threat unlikely to be covered in the big search media of tomorrow. Is it worth raising today?

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