The industry is built on the principle that the customer always comes first. Nothing and no one matters more than what the customer wants. This predictably leads to horrible damage to those who produce porn, and to the people who are their product. But there is also damage done to consumers who are offered their little holiday in a world of wish fulfilment. Some will want to emigrate there.
Company plans to make content generated by users available to commerce, academia and even police involved in crowd control
You are travelling by plane to see your newborn grandchild. As you board the aircraft, the cabin crew address you by name and congratulate you on the arrival of a bouncing baby boy. On your seat, you find a gift-wrapped blue rattle with a note from the airline.
In Twitter data strategy chief Chris Moody’s vision of the future, companies surprising their customers like this could become an everyday occurrence – made possible because Twitter is listening.
Computer systems are already aggregating trillions of tweets from the microblogging site, sorting and sifting through countless conversations, following the banter and blustering, ideas and opinions of its 288 million users in search of commercial opportunities.
It is not only commercial interests that are mining the data. Academics are using it to gauge the mood in a football crowd, and trying to shed light on whether Premier League players such as Manchester United’s Radamel Falcao are overpaid – with a team of researchers from Reading, Dundee and Cambridge universities testing whether top-flight footballers’ salaries are related purely to performance on the pitch or can be boosted by popularity on social media.
Selling data is as yet a small part of Twitter’s overall income – $70m out of a total of $1.3bn last year, with the lion’s share of cash coming from advertising, but the social network has big plans to increase that. Its acquisition of Chris Moody’s analytics company Gnip for $130m last April is a sign of that intent.
Google and Facebook have built their businesses around sharing data, but their control of our private and public information has become a source of huge controversy.
A cynic might say that we have the internet we deserve. We were promised a democratic platform for change, for equality, for collaboration, yet are faced with a reality of weary cynicism, as author Charles Leadbeater wrote last summer, and an assumption that we cannot trust any organisation with our personal data.
We were told of flourishing startups and opportunities for all, yet the internet has amplified global inequalities, says Andrew Keen, a writer on the internet revolution, using the parlance of openness and opportunity to create an industry of disproportionately wealthy entrepreneurs.
And as the meaningful engagement of governments in the lives of citizens diminishes, we stare into a dystopian future described by Evgeny Morozov: Silicon Valley is heading towards a “digital socialism”, where benevolent corporations provide all the health, education, travel and housing employees could ever desire, negating the need for state provision. Ice that cake with the unpalatable truth about the reach of our government’s surveillance services and we might think our internet is already beyond help.
Commercial interests have shaped the internet, and have created such powerful organisations that governments now struggle to keep up – out-funded, out-lobbied and outwitted. Rather than reflecting the real world, the internet absorbs and amplifies it, re-presenting a version of our lives, our work and our culture, from the gross disproportion of privilege and access afforded to those even able to access the internet to the misogyny that cripples meaningful debate. Even acknowledging its infancy, the internet does not represent a version of ourselves of which we can be proud. From privacy and surveillance to our collective cultural record, where is the internet we are truly capable of? Quietly, excitedly, and in a modestly British way, there is an alternative emerging. Rather than the internet as shopping mall – defined and dominated by commercial interests – how could we build the public park of the internet?
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