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We Have Yet to Clothe Ourselves In Data. We Will.

By - March 12, 2014

SenatorTogaWe are all accustomed to the idea of software “Preferences” – that part of the program where you can personalize how a particular application looks, feels, and works. Nearly every application that matters to me on my computer – Word, Keynote, Garage Band, etc. –  have preferences and settings.

On a Macintosh computer, for example, “System Preferences” is the control box of your most important interactions with the machine.

I use the System Preferences box at least five times a week, if not more.

And of course, on the Internet, there’s a yard sale’s worth of preferences: I’ve got settings for Twitter, Facebook, WordPress, Evernote, and of course Google – where I probably have a dozen different settings, given I have multiple identities there, and I use Google for mail, calendar, docs, YouTube, and the like.

preferencesAny service I find important has settings. It’s how I control my interactions with The Machine. But truth is, Preferences are no fun. And they should be.

The problem: I mainly access preferences when something is wrong. In the digital world, we’ve been trained to see “Preferences” as synonymous with “Dealing With Shit I Don’t Want To Deal With.” I use System Preferences, for example, almost exclusively to deal with problems: Fixing the orientation of my monitors when moving from work to home, finding the right Wifi network, debugging a printer, re-connecting a mouse or keyboard to my computer.  And I only check Facebook or Google preferences to fix things too – to opt out of ads, resolve an identity issue, or  enable some new software feature. Hardly exciting stuff.

Put another way, Preferences is a “plumbing” brand – we only think about it when it breaks.

But what if we thought of it differently? What if managing your digital Preferences was more like….managing your wardrobe?

A few years back I wrote The Rise of Digital Plumage, in which I posited that sometime soon we’ll be wearing the equivalent of “digital clothing.” We’ll spend as much time deciding how we want to “look” in the public sphere of the Internet as we do getting dressed in the morning (and possibly more). We’ll “dress ourselves in data,” because it will become socially important – and personally rewarding –  to do so. We’ll have dashboards that help us instrument our wardrobe, and while their roots will most likely stem from the lowly Preference pane, they’ll soon evolve into something far more valuable.

This is a difficult idea to get your head around, because right now, data about ourselves is warehoused on huge platforms that live, in the main, outside our control. Sure, you can download a copy of your Facebook data, but what can you *do* with it? Not much. Platforms like Facebook are doing an awful lot with your data – that’s the trade for using the service. But do you know how Facebook models you to its partners and advertisers? Nope. Facebook (and nearly all other Internet services) keep us in the dark about that.

We lack an ecosytem that encourages innovation in data use, because the major platforms hoard our data.

This is retarded, in the nominal/verb sense of the word. Facebook’s picture of me is quite different from Google’s, Twitter’s, Apple’s, or Acxiom’s*. Imagine what might happen if I, as the co-creator of all that data, could share it all with various third parties that I trusted? Imagine further if I could mash it up with other data entities – be they friends of mine, bands I like, or even brands?

Our current model of data use, in which we outsource individual agency over our data to huge factory farms, will soon prove a passing phase. We are at once social and individual creatures, and we will embrace any technology that allows us to express who we are through deft weavings of our personal data – weavings that might include any number of clever bricolage with any number of related cohorts. Fashion has its tailors, its brands, its designers and its standards (think blue jeans or the white t-shirt). Data fashion will develop similar players.

Think of all the data that exists about you – all those Facebook likes and posts, your web browsing and search history, your location signal, your Instagrams, your supermarket loyalty card, your credit card and Square and PayPal purchases, your Amazon clickstream, your Fitbit output – think of each of these as threads which might be woven into a fabric, and that fabric then cut into a personalized wardrobe that describes who you are, in the context of how you’d like to be seen in any given situation.

Humans first started wearing clothing about 170,000 years ago. “Fashion” as we know it today is traced to the rise of European merchant classes in the 14th century. Well before that, clothing had become a social fact. A social fact is a stricture imposed by society – for example, if you don’t wear clothing, you are branded as something of a weirdo.

Clothing is an extremely social artifact –  *what* you wear, and how, are matters of social judgement and reciprocity. We obsess over what we wear, and we celebrate those “geniuses” who have managed to escape this fact (Einstein and Steve Jobs both famously wore the same thing nearly every day).

There’s another reason the data fabric of your life is not easily converted into clothing – because at the moment, digital clothing is not a social fact. There’s no social pressure for your “look” a certain way, because thanks our outsourcing of our digital identity to places like Facebook, Twitter, and Google+, we all pretty much look the same to each other online. As I wrote in Digital Plumage:

How strange is it that we as humans have created an elaborate, branded costume culture to declare who we are in the physical world, but online, we’re all pretty much wearing khakis and blue shirts?

At it relates to data, we are naked apes, but this is about to change. It’s far too huge an opportunity.

Consider: The global clothing industry grosses more than $1 trillion annually. We now spend more time online that we do watching television. And as software eats the world, it turns formerly inanimate physical surroundings into animated actors on our digital stage. As we interact with these data lit spaces, we’ll increasingly want to declare our preferences inside them via digital plumage.

An example. Within a few years, nearly every “hip” retail store will be lit with wifi, sensors, and sophisticated apps. In other words, software will eat the store. Let’s say you’re going into an Athleta outlet. When you enter, the store will know you’ve arrived, and begin to communicate with your computing device – never mind if its Glass, a mobile phone, or some other wearable.  As the consumer in this scenario, won’t you want to declare “who you are” to the retail brand’s sensing device? That’s what you do in the real world, no? And won’t you want to instrument your intent – provide signal to that store that will allow the store to understand your intent? And wouldn’t the “you” at Athleta be quite different from, say, the “you” that you become when shopping at Whole Foods or attending a Lord Huron concert?

Then again, you could be content with whatever profile Facebook has on you, (or Google, or ….whoever). Good luck with that.

I believe we will embrace the idea of describing and declaring who we are through data, in social context. It’s wired into us. We’ve evolved as social creatures. So I believe we’re at the starting gun of a new industry. One where thousands of participants take our whole data cloth and stitch it into form, function, and fashion for each of us. Soon we’ll have a new kind of “Preferences” – social preferences that we wear, trade, customize, and buy and sell.

In a way, younger generations are already getting prepared for such a world – what is the selfie but a kind of digital dress up?

Lastly, as with real clothing, I believe brands will be the key driving force in the rise of this industry. As I’m already over 1,000 words, I’ll write more on that idea in another post. 

*(fwiw, I am on Acxiom’s board)

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6 thoughts on “We Have Yet to Clothe Ourselves In Data. We Will.

  1. Phil Simon says:

    We like to demonize data brokers, but consider this: they are fulfilling a legitimate business need. If not, then why would there be thousands of them?

  2. [...] We Have Yet To Clothe Ourselves In Data. We Will – John Battelle [...]

  3. [...] John Battelle article on data: http://battellemedia.com/archives/2014/03/branded-data-preferences.php [...]

  4. Will Dearman says:

    A data ecosystem will only grow when it is practical for it to exist, and that means it has to deliver value to the data owner. For now the data owner is the “huge factory farms” you describe, but you’re right it is changing. Court cases are beginning to recognize data has intrinsic value and that value should belong to the creator of that data.

    Once, as “co-creator of all that data”, I own it then I am going to rationally seek to drive value from that ownership (customized experiences, monetary, et al). The “huge factory farms” derive no benefit from me having a better experience at a retailer who is not part of their ecosystem, and thus is not going to make investments to make that possible. Few realize how much we have collectively given up by not having legally recognized ownership rights to our data; not only can our data be used in ways that do not benefit us, but it squelches the innovative marketplace of uses for our data that would otherwise exist.