The notion of “empathy” in a business context has caused a stir since we learned Facebook has an“Empathy Team” dedicated to helping engineers learn what it’s like to be a user or an advertiser on its platform. This approach has provoked searing critique from the likes of Om Malik, who points out the sinister superficiality that having such a team represents, and Lucy Kellaway at the Financial Times who lambasts the shift in terminology from “daily average users” to “daily average people,” as condescending to the so-called “average” people who use its platform.
This “Empathy Team” should, however, not distract from the fact that Facebook’s primary tactic for simulating empathy is through the personal data it collects on its users. Facebook’s algorithms tap into all of its users’ data — their online identity, behavior and preferences — to drive business and for financial gain. This data is used to further build out Facebook’s services, which keeps people coming back; this is then traded for advertising dollars.
Since almost everyone in the world with access to the Internet is on Facebook (and Facebook needs to expand the Internet universe to grow), clearly, people don’t seem to mind. They are aware of the value exchange going on, and are willing to trade their data for the price of a tailored newsfeed and personalized marketing messages. This is because the Facebook experience is truly great and life has never been better for the recipient of an ad.
People, however, are only valuing their data at today’s price. Their valuation bears no thought for how their data might be used in the future.
As Jaron Lanier puts it, “all forms of automation ultimately rely on data that come from people.” If we know that people’s data is being used to build things greater than the sum of us, where does that leave the value of our data?
I believe Jaron Lanier and James Whittaker think the solution to all this is a micro-payments system, where people are paid a small fee each time they share their data, to ensure that “citizens (do) not lose the power of the purse.” (Lanier). Emergent social network, Tsu, which pays people in royalties when they are advertised to, gained 1 million users in just four weeks at launch, showing interest in this model.
Such a system makes sense to me. However, the price of people’s data should not be pegged to its value today, as this does not take into account the future value of this data, when it is used to construct sophisticated and profitable automated systems.
I think there is a need for a marketplace where people can bet on the price of people data, based on their take on what the future holds. This would be an efficient capitalist solution that maintains competition in a scenario where everyday people stand to gain.