Getting Big Data is no longer the issue. What is guiding our use of it?

On December 12, I had the pleasure of moderating and serving as a respondent on the panel, “Social Media Analytics: Making Sense and Businesses from Big Data” at Linnaeus University in Sweden. The panel was part of the LU Media Technology department’s “Social Media Week.” Panelists were Peter Bjellerup (Social Business Consultant, Global Centre of Competence, IBM), Ian Dunne (Expound Social Media), and Marc Jansen (Hochschule Ruhr West and Linnaeus University).

Listening to each speaker, there was no doubt in my mind that big data has arrived. Production or creation of data is no longer an issue. And even taking into consideration the real challenges laid out for us by Jansen (such as needing to develop new approaches to memory management and structuring multiple data formats), I don’t really think that technical issues are any more an insurmountable task. What I saw in these presentations was a clear turn in the tide, from data qua data, to the uses of that data. And particularly fascinating were the recurring references to “conversations” and “meanings.” Bjellerup’s central argument was for the importance of thinking about big data as a tool for creating conversations — for listening to and engaging with customers. The challenge that organizations now face is how to translate data into action: how to use it to make decisions, to create relationships. Dunne took this a step further in a way I think is important for communication scholars: to devise means to bring data to specific and particular embodied situations in order to shape and alter the conversation in the moment. In other words, to push the data to users in real-time according to context specific demands. I have talked about this elsewhere as a vision of using technology to augment communication – to remove constraints or create possibilities, but without fundamentally altering the nature of the relationship.

The overall theme brought home by the speakers is how do we move from data to action? I also heard a troubling assumption underlying each of the speakers’ comments–though I suspect they would take issue with me here. What I heard was an odd acceptance that data collection is so ubiquitous (and that we are so frequently complicitous in that collection) that the data can know us, can reveal us in quite intimate ways. Ways that we might not even be conscious of ourselves. In that way, the data are transparent–there is no interpretation or rationalization of what action is more important than another. The system just collects our actions. So, then, the question of decision making — of what to do with this data and how to make sense of it — becomes a critical social issue. The panelists argue their enterprises seek to “measure, process, explain the success of social media”. My question is: what are our criteria for success? Research questions of 20 years ago no longer are as relevant: devices are now highly diffused, data is collected across multiple contexts, most users provide data freely, and social media is an accepted forum for interaction and exchange. So now the questions are about content. Yesterday’s data was planned, principled, and structured. Today’s is both unstructured (unprincipled, “ambient” data) and decontextualized (data is captured but we don’t need to know how it will be used).

We are in a sea of data. If the current issue is how to create conversations from that data, to build relationships, then this is no longer properly a technical issue or even a business issue. This is a social and ethical issue. I am not referring to the standard concerns based on individual privacy. Although there are concerns about how the data will be used, surveillance is more relevant to decisions about gathering and storing information. I am talking about something different. The emerging connections of multiple sources flatten our experiences into a single data stream which can then be appropriated to alter the nature of our interactions with one another, our relationships, and our communication. The data about us in the system makes us familiar to others, sometimes in deeply personal ways (in a story that is quickly becoming famous, marketers can analyze data to find out your family planning strategies). We are immediately and intimately familiar to those we haven’t even met. We will need to discuss as a society and in our communities new questions: should there be requirements for creating a “relationship” with someone? Should users of data be required (or expected) to follow norms relating to social rules and roles? And for communication scholars: what will be the emerging patterns of interaction in these situations? What are the communication ethics of “personal information differentials”?

Humans have always had information about one another. And, as a result, we have developed expectations for how to use that information, for what is acceptable and what is not. Now we are entering into a new information era. Our traditional guidelines may no longer hold. We need new conversations.

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