Friday, 19 July 2013

Gmail's New 'Tabs', Personalisation and "Intentionality Harvesting"

Maybe I'm just getting suspicious, but I'm beginning to wonder whenever a social media firm offers me new 'facilities' what is really driving the innovation. After all, there is little competition between social network services (Facebook is Facebook, Twitter is twitter), and despite a few attempts to make Facebook like Twitter, or Googlemail like Facebook, there seems little point to tweaking interfaces from a user point of view. In fact, users usually come off worse because they are not in control of the interfaces. The lack of control over the instrumentation is very interesting because this is precisely the point behind the Personal Learning Environment. There we argued that open Service Oriented Architecture could be used (through APIs) to allow users to coordinate their own interfaces. To some extent this is reality in many mobile apps (and Windows 8) which integrates across social platforms. However, for the majority of people, engagement with gmail is through, engagement with Facebook is through, engagement with Twitter is through So changing the instrumentation matters to people - on the whole, I find it irritating.

But in the light of our increasing awareness of the power of analytics, we can also ask "what does Google gain by changing the instrumentation, adding categorisation tabs, etc?" The answer is "quite a lot". Gmail's new 'tabs' allows users to categorise their communication. This is presented to the user as an added organisational facility to help them manage their lives. But surely Google don't feel that people will desert Gmail if it doesn't have 'tabs'? They know people are hooked-in already. So what else is in it to add this feature?

The answer is that this 'user facility' for self-organisation is also means of capturing powerful metadata about personal communication. It may not be that big a deal for the user as to which emails they decide to put under which category, but with the size of Google's userbase, this becomes a powerful piece of metadata which can reveal patterns of usage and personal priorities which can feed directly into their own analytics services for companies and marketing.

Google's business is the prediction of the behaviour of its users. It has found a way of giving 'free' tools which people are attracted to, providing free storage services which are powerful, all as a means to getting people to reveal their intentionality. Google can play with its interfaces and tools as it seeks to 'tune' the data it harvests and the analytic services it provides. This appears to be the dominant business model of the 21st century data company. Amazon are playing a very similar game, as are Twitter and Facebook. The key is to find something that everybody wants (in Amazon's case, books; in Google's, search and storage), and then sell it at low cost (or give it away) as a means to harvesting data on what people like, what they think, etc. It is the commercial colonisation of private life.

My last post was about oppression online. This is it! What is remarkable is that we don't feel it as oppressive. But then again, it wasn't that long ago that we thought that banks were trustworthy. The information bankers are mining our private lives and making profits out them. The online education providers are likely to play a similar game (because it is the only game that appears to make financial sense). We have little choice but to play along: the world is changing in such a way that online engagement with these services is mandatory.

The best we can do now is to not lose sight of what is really happening, and to be ready for the consequences when they finally arrive.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I loved your post, but why are you using Google Blogger? You're giving your data to Google.