Web 2.0: Data is Feral

Live stream the Web 2.0 Summit on mashable now. They’ll be speakers like James Gleick (Author of The Information), Bill Maris (Google Ventures), and Sean Parker (Founders Fund). The conference kicked off at 2:00 p.m. PT Monday and will start up again at 9:00 a.m. PT Tuesday and Wednesday.

The focus is on data, online identity, privacy, human rights, innovation and the economy. I found Christopher Poole (4chan) and Genevieve Bell’s (Intel Labs) presentations to be particularly inspiring. Poole laid bare the problem with online identity today. People are not mirrors who reflect the same identity in all situations. People are more like diamonds or prisms who can appear as completely different people depending on the angle of observation, but who are always essentially the same person. Christopher feels that social nets like Facebook and Google + are treating people as if they are flat, dimensionless caricatures of themselves. He feels that Google’s identity requisite is ridiculous because it forces all users to be tethered to every online action they’ve ever done. This is especially detrimental to youth, who should be free to explore and make mistakes without lasting repercussions in order to grow. Christopher insists that he is not an anonymity guy, he’s just a choices guy.

Genevieve Bell asked, “If data were a person, what would it look like?” She hypothesized that “data likes to look good,” backing up her statement with a stat that 100% of Americans lie about how they look on dating sites. 100%. So all of the unstructured data we generate (80% of new data growth) is skewed with our own desires to enhance our appearance online. From this perspective, data is not just an aggregation of our online actions, but also an embodiment of our qualitative hopes and fears. Genevieve very much reminded me of Kevin Kelly’s 2010 description of the biological nature of the technium in What Technology Wants when she went on to describe why data is feral. Data has a life of its own. It cannot be controlled. It will generate and move across country lines, through languages and any barriers you could imagine. Of course privacy policy and security measures will evolve to resist this, but that won’t change the wild nature of data. (BTW this is why I personally believe that data generation+analysis goes hand in hand with egalitarian social elevation, not for a “social betterment” play, but for the primal reason that humans learned to cooperate in the first place: to survive.) Data is certainly the most powerful and indiscriminate force of our generation. Genevieve’s last point was that data may not want to last forever. Some data, like all biological beings, will want to pass away. This dovetails nicely with Christopher Poole’s argument for the right to transient online identities.

Out of all the endless permutations of what constitutes “advertising,” this is by far my favorite: awesome brands sponsoring thinkers to get together think. TED. BMW Guggenheim Lab. The Creator’s Project. Sundance New Frontier Story Lab. Brands look great purely through association with these mash ups. The more brands allow thought leaders and creatives to autonomously run the show, the better the brands look. Less is more. It’s a beautiful, symbiotic relationship that has been propelling innovation since the days of the World’s Fair. Free to all, this is branded content at its best: an unquestionable contribution to society, an audience who grows in numbers and quality, a brand that continually renews its values with the social milieu. Bravo Adobe, Bing, Intel, Nielsen, IBM, Serve, Dell, Yahoo!, and all the rest.

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