Your email address is worth 100 tea lights…

Ikea Family mailshot: 100 tea lights for your email address

How much is personal data worth? How might that be calculated? These are hard questions. Nevertheless, personal data does attract particular kinds of value, often determined by those harvesting and selling it on, such as Facebook, Google and so on.

These are rarely visible calculations, probably necessarily so – data is sometimes only worth something when it is part of a larger set. We are both an individual and part of one or more populations (which can be variously defined and derived in data). When you make up a ‘segment’ of a given population, your data, and what can thereby be inferred, has a particular value.

For example, the email marketing company Topspin apparently calculate the pecuniary value of a person’s email address to a band harvesting it based upon the amount of money that person (fan) will, on average, go on to spend on their music.

In a recent piece for the New York Times website, Rebecca Lieb, a digital advertising and media analyst at the Altimeter Group, offers an example:

“Facebook has deep, deep data on its users. You can slice and dice markets, like women 25 to 35 who live in the Southeast and are fans of ‘Breaking Bad,’ … The new Atlas platform, she said, “can track people across devices, weave together online and offline.”

The data collected by various market research companies carries a notional value that is sometimes rendered visible in stark ways. Another example illustrates this: In a 2011 article for Huffington Post the price list for marketing data company Rapleaf shows for how much particular pieces of data were sold.  Age and gender are given away free, whereas ‘Likely smart phone user’ is $0.03.

We are thus worth something insofar as we are represented (accurately or otherwise) as a collection of data in one or more databases. We individually value our own data variously, depending on its use, context and so on. An email address, then, may be valuable if it is private, or not valuable if it is used for any old competition entry – this is often contextual and that can, of course, be missed by the marketing data companies (perhaps this is a good thing).

Nevertheless, we, or, more accurately, the data that are used to variously represent us, are commodified – our data-selves are products. Any sense of a unified ‘self’ is possibly too neat, our physically bodied selves rendered endlessly divisible and reducible to data representations, what Deleuze referred to as ‘dividuals’ in his excellent ‘Postscript on Societies of Control‘. There is a real sense in which, thought in this way, we are variously rendered separate from and without control of our representations in data.

The Ikea flyer, pictured above, soliciting an email address for a notional inducement of 100 tea lights made me think through the above and back to the excellent Paying Attention conference of 2010, concerning the idea of attention economies. At the conference, and in other contexts, the redoubtable Tim Kindberg formulated his ‘Facebook data provocations‘ – encouraging others to speculate about what would happen if we (the users) charged Facebook for our data. Thinking back over the academic moment of worry over privacy it seems necessary to continue to think about these things. While the horse has bolted and the stable door has long since been the portal to an upmarket barn conversion, I argue that these  questions remain pertinent.

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