Knowledge is power
Who are we? How much do we know about ourselves? How do we find out more?
Our company, 110%, exists to help people answer these questions. Our Personal Accelerators are Emotional Intelligence experts who act like mirrors, reflecting people back on themselves and helping them see themselves in new lights. We empower people to grow and change through the application of this new knowledge into every aspect of their lives. Learning about people is our bread and butter; but we aren’t alone in this.
Most companies today want access to your data. Psychometric testing and activity analysis have been condensed into a single click: “Sign in with Facebook”. There’s good reason for this; the more a company knows about you, the better they’re able to exploit that knowledge to please you; to sell to you; to track your place in the aggregate of their consumer base and better identify their target market.
So what about me? What do I know about myself. Well, frankly, a lot. I’ve had support much like our users, feedback from friends, and spent many a night giving myself a long hard look in the mirror. But is that what we are? A combination of our own interpretations of ourselves reflected back in the form of friends, therapists, enemies and coaches? Are we what we present ourselves to be, or what is said about us? Is the cold, calculated statistics of our internet activity in fact the best interpretation of us that there is? I want to find out what we know about ourselves, how we can find out what the internet thinks, and how we can put it all together.
We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit
Starting this was easy, Google “what does google know about me” (thereby alerting them to your plans and adding the note ‘conspiracy nutjob’ to your secret file, but no matter), and you’ll see a plethora of articles ever falling out of date, that tell you how to access your data profile. As everyone does, I clicked on the first one, which led me to my Google Activity controls. I was pleasantly surprised to see I’d had every tracking option: Web & App Activity, Location History, Device Information, Voice and Audio Activity, etc. switched off. Great. Win for privacy, but a loss for the sake of this article. This was, however, a list of options, not the amalgamated information Google doubtless has on me. I had to look deeper than the first link; maybe even… the second one?
In the 9th link I found this; an article from Google telling me what they collect and what they do with it. Interesting, but ultimately unhelpful; everything thus far has told me what they collect, but not what it is. I want to know what they know about me, who they think I am based on what they collect and whether that knowledge is useful to me.
I tried searching through their ad information pages instead, and started getting along the right tracks, finding their ad settings page. This is genuinely interesting and I suggest you take a look at yours. It’s a list of things that you’ve been tracked to have ‘liked’ according to your search and browsing history. What I found particularly interesting was the slight but existent difference between my company search profile and my personal one. Below is a screenshot of them side by side, with my personal on the right, and my company on the left.
This seems to be the closest thing to a ‘profile’ of me that I can find on Google. It’s possible to find out more about yourself by enabling certain other google-provided tracking services; from your youtube search history to location timeline; all of it is disabled at your command, but none of it is the picture of myself I’d been looking for.
So let’s leave Google for the moment and go for the master of knowledge tracking, the much maligned Facebook.
Facebook knows a lot about me. At least, if you go on my Facebook you’ll find out a lot about me. You’ll find out that I’m 23, that I like rock climbing, that I work for 110%, that I’m a wannabe musician and writer, that I once listened to Bono; and you’ll even finally know what I did last summer. But is that it? What does Facebook itself know about me beyond what I make publicly available?
Having learned my lesson from Google I went straight to the advertiser settings. After all, that’s the business model, right? We, the user, are the product, not the consumer. The advertisers are the customers, and our data is what’s being sold; so it must be worth buying, musn’t it?
After Googling my request yet again I came up with numerous articles showing me how to access the raw data Facebook had accumulated about me; but again, the closest I came to finding what I wanted was this.
This seemed hopelessly limited, aside from the information I’d directly given them; my school, age, university and employer, they seemed in the dark about who I was. Interestingly they seem to have believed the fact that I was ‘married’ (A joke between me and a friend several years ago which I’d actually forgotten about until now).
While it was surprising that they knew, for instance, the make and model of my phone, the OS of my computer and my connection type, they also seemed to think I was some sort of coder. This is based on my apparent interest in IT and computation and mathematics, which, whilst flattering, is wrong. I was amazed by how little they seemed to know about me, this list above is it; or at least, all that I was able to access.
There is, of course, also the list of things I’ve publicly ‘liked’ which, as anyone with Tinder will tell you, is an almost decent way of telling if you’ve got the same interests as someone, at least as long as you’ve publicly declared them.
But in looking through the list, I realise how many are wrong. I’ve had facebook for over 10 years now, and the above seemed like a random and unsorted selection of things I might once have looked at. The full list is available, but if Facebook doesn’t weight these things somehow then their picture of me must be hopelessly outdated. I mean, Tom Waits, sure, Rick and Morty, definitely, the Libertines, once upon a time, but K-Pop? Is this it?
Worse yet was my list of alleged ‘hobbies and activities’:
I literally laughed out loud when I saw this (Literalol? Litalol? Anyway). I mean, well done Facebook; you’ve cracked the code of my love of climbing, motorbikes, writing and guitar, but nothing more, and much is missing. What really made me giggle was my apparent love of the activity: ‘Day’, my obsession with the concept of ‘Friction’, and my long time secret passion: “Koala” (I mean who doesn’t like to go for a quick Koala now and then?).
This didn’t make sense. How could their profile of me be this bad, this spurious and random? I’m very open with my Facebook account, I’ve connected my instagram (which they now own), my whatsapp, (which they now own), my tinder, my spotify, my… in fact, everywhere I go online that allows me to: ‘sign in with Facebook’, I do, it’s easier.
This is only about half the websites listed, but even so the point should be clear. How can Facebook, with all this information, know so little about me? The only things I learned from looking at this list were: “I game too much”, and “Holy shit, friend wheel still exists!?”
But looking at this as if it were a stranger, there’s a lot we can tell here:
All the games
Young and Aspirational (Broke) :
Airbnb, Groupon, Gumtree, Glassdoor, BBC Career Centre, Bandsintown, Couchsurfing, Blablacar, Glide
Cydia, BUX, AVG Privacy Fix, iMovie, Codecadamy
Cracked, Cyanide and Happiness, Imgur
If we add to that my music tastes from spotify, my search history (oh help me god), my watch history from Netflix, my purchase history from Amazon, let alone my clicks and read times on Facebook (which they do have somewhere, and you can find out), then we must be able to build up a pretty gosh darn accurate picture of me. So why can’t I find it? Why, when I’ve found the little I’ve found, is it so vague, inaccurate and, worst of all, simply a list of things, rather than a profile of a person based on conclusions drawn from that list?
The answer, now I’ve stopped to think about it, breathe, and let that sentence come to an end, is simple. They don’t care. Not in an angsty ‘the man doesn’t care about me’ way, but in a realistic and sober thought: they don’t care about me. This whole time I’d been looking for the internet to condemn me as a waste of time millennial or extol me as a genius based on my search history and likes; but it won’t. It’s not for me. The data that’s being collected is simply for advertisers. My dissatisfaction at the limited information collected is because that’s all they need. My vague interests. They don’t need to, like dating apps do, like we do, analyse the trends shown between disparate ‘likes’ and create a persona out of it. They just need to know that I like climbing and show me climbing stuff and hope that I buy it. Which I probably will.
So this is it, we’ve gone from Ginsburg to this:
The greatest minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads
-Jeffrey Hammerbacher. Facebook.
So where does that leave me in my quest for self knowledge? Well, nowhere. What I wanted doesn’t exist yet. Harnessing the available data you put out about yourself every day and translating it into something that empowers you with self-knowledge isn’t in anyone’s interests but yours. And ours. Watch this space.
So perhaps as you go about your day, start thinking about all the data you could be collecting. What story would your google searches, your app usage, facebook profile, online purchases be telling? What is the digital you and how could you be using this knowledge?
Further Reading (Privacy)
P.S. There are, of course, ways of tracking your data online, but none of them are that good or, importantly, simple. Here are the ones I’ve found:
P.P.S. If you find better ones, or want to hurl abuse at me, please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org