Data. It’s the big key that will unlock so many things, personalisation being, perhaps, the biggest. Or so they say. But is it really the skeleton key so many in advertising and marketing believe?

No, it’s not. In fact, it’s anything but the Holy Grail of marketing it’s hailed as. And while there are many, many reasons why that is, one of the main ones is that is makes wild assumptions about a tiny part of what makes me the person I am. And, maybe more importantly, it can be distorted easily.

I used to think personalisation was great. That was back in 2001 when I really wanted things that aligned with my thinking, my way of living, etc. Others thought the same, albeit with an eye on future problems [PDF]. Those were some of the more innovative days of the web. Since then, the internet has developed beyond a way of distributing content cheaply and quickly into a revolutionary media channel – and a channel that is two-way, which still comes as a surprise to some marketers. Social media is causing this to mushroom.

So, data is seen as the way forward. It’s the way in which marketers and their brands can get their product or service in front of as many eyes as possible. In essence, they are still using the traditional ways of talking to us, as if we’re still the captive audience sitting in a room, not talking, but instead watching a glowing box spraying its images onto our collective retinas. Except it doesn’t work. It’s marketing by assumption.

And we all know assumption is the mother of all fuck ups. It is because it can only be based on the shallowest of data pools. Genetically, fishing in such a shallow pool only leads to disaster – we only need look at isolated Lepidoptera populations in the Alps to see what that means.

Data is no different to genetics. Because, if you fail to get a rounded view of someone, all you have is a bunch of assumptions (or a finite number of facets that may not be the best things to take forward to the next iteration). And therefore, that data only tells you a tiny part of the infinitely bigger picture.

A good way of demonstrating this is through automated personalities, such as those offered by Weavrs. Now, I like this service and the idea behind it – but it doesn’t really give me a sense of who someone really is. Here’s an example: I created Bono (the singer in U2, in case you wondered) from his Wikipedia entry.

It’s fair to say that a lot of the data I get fed back to the Bono-specific Weavrs blog matches against what I know of him. But I think he’d be mortified to see a lot of what his alter-ego posts. It doesn’t truly represent him (and neither is it meant to); however, the APIs from which this data is taken are beginning to drive how we as humans, citizens and web users are viewed by corporates, governments and – in some cases, such as Facebook – each other.


Are You Really This Or That?

So, let’s consider how it’s so easy, online, to present a version of yourself that doesn’t actually reflect the person you are. Is that data really telling those of us in marketing and advertising what the consumer wants? At a more simple level, there are many examples of how purchasing a gift at Christmas can skew what Amazon displays to you. Or how allowing someone else to search from your iGoogle page (linked to your Google profile) means you’ll get results for later searches that aren’t quite as targeted as they think they are. In short, it’s easy to game the system – or be gamed by the system.

And then, on the flip-side, there’s increased choice, which personalisation is driving. Before, we were in only a few distinct groups based on gender, geographic location, age range, etc. This meant that products and services didn’t attempt to be so granular. Now that we know there is a niche market for mugs in the shape of cows, or carpets that are made from the woven hair of heavy metal musicians, there has been an increase in business models that play to some notion of unique (that, if nothing else goes to prove how misunderstood that word is). The best example is Zazzle. I think Dis Magazine sums it up best, although with a different slant to the one I’m taking.


Does Frictionless Create Friction?

The issues surrounding data have always been around privacy, yet it didn’t stop its march to online supremacy. That’s possibly (almost certainly?) because the public were blind-sided by the ability of the internet to deliver goods quickly and cheaply, to allow real-time conversations with people in far-flung lands. It revolutionised our worldview.

Today, the issue of privacy is at the forefront of the debate. As sharing becomes the norm – and why wouldn’t it, when you consider that in any social group sharing has benefits for all and has worked for millennia – so conversations about privacy and access to unsuitable content (from file-sharing copyrighted material to porn) are bubbling to the surface. Personalisation is no longer seen by the masses as useful. And it all comes back an assumption: if I like this and you’re my friend then surely you’ll like it to.

And therein the fault lies. The people I like: let’s just say that I don’t choose to like them because they mirror my own self, my beliefs and my ideas. I like them for some of those things, but I also have really good friends with whom I disagree on many points or share little in common in terms of cultural taste, or beliefs. I like the discordance their disparate views provide. My brain doesn’t want comfortable; it feeds on being discombobulated.

For me it’s less about the intrusive nature of sharing (like those television programmes that people watch and then complain about, you always have the option to switch off) and more about the fact that these services really have no idea about me at all. And it spoils the serendipitous nature of learning and life that I enjoy. It reduces the pool from which I can fish. It purifies the gene pool.

And that’s not a good thing. Especially if you want to sell me your product or service.


What’s Next?

I don’t know. But I suspect, at some point, that data will be handed back to the individual so that each person can choose how they use it, with whom they share it, when and for how long. This democratisation of data may turn out to have its problems as much as it could provide a solution – who’s to say a person is any better at keeping their data secure than a government office or a corporation?

Which brings me back to genetics.

The other day I Tweeted in response to a question about the future of the retail banking industry, suggesting that I’d like to see my personal financial data spliced into my DNA. I was serious. Yet this could end up being even less secure.

Some personal data is – and has always been – readily available: you just have to ask. It’s when a mutation occurs that interesting things happen, genetically. Evolution relies on it. So, let’s find a way to mutate our data beyond using it as a way to profile each individual. Data mutation –and manipulation – is what gave us (for want of a less hideous term) Web 2.0.

If we’re to evolve again – and data is the social DNA – then further mutation and manipulation what might just be the tipping point. Whether that should be controlled by an organisation is a point for further discussion – for what it’s worth, I don’t want to trust a closed ecosphere such as Facebook or Google, or Microsoft or Apple, or the UK Government with my personal data. But, if it could be made anonymous enough and given to the masses to play around with, then I think that it would be a very interesting place to play.

Because then we’ll be using data to provide benefits for humans as a species, not simply looking for new ways to collect data or novel ways to flog individuals more and more stuff.