Every now and again John Battelle tosses around his thoughts on how user data is (and should be) handled on the Internet. Why does Facebook profit from and receive all our user data? Does it always have to be that way? Battelle doesn’t take anything for granted, and for that I admire his thoughts immensely.
A week or so back Battelle presented the idea of the platform of you, where instead of giving all your data to Facebook, all the data you create is packaged, movable, and completely under your control. This type of computer forensics is a fairly new field, and, to many people, the process of gathering the information isn’t very transparent.
The idea presents some interesting twists on personalization and the possibilities of the web, but in an environment where so many users are ignorant as to what is actually happening with their data I wonder where such a movement will come from. Unless there’s a privacy crisis of some kind, I doubt the initiative would travel far fueled only on consumer demand.
Instead, if the Platform of You comes to life it will come from one of the most ironic and unexpected places imaginable.
“Where?” you might ask. In my mind if anyone ever gave users access to their data for safekeeping and selected dissemination, it would be brand marketers looking to play the contrarian card and then gain more data as a result. “But how?” you ask.
Well let’s put it this way. Right now Facebook, Twitter, Google, Amazon, and a handful of other companies have a whole lot of online user data and they are (for the most part) the only ones benefiting as a result.
Consumers have no control over this data and except for in the case of some inexplicable anomaly, such an initiative would never come from a company that stands to lose from giving up control over user data. In other words, The Platform of You isn’t going to start with Facebook, Twitter and Google skipping, holding hands, and chewing gummy bears. These ad driven networks, even though each is unique unto the other, stand to lose too much by risking their data to The Platform of You.
A huge e-commerce site (which may sell ads but certainly doesn’t make the bulk of their profits that way, may look at the equation a bit differently. They stand to gain more from a central platform of user data because the products you talk about on Facebook, for example, could help them build a better product recommendation system.
Of course these companies can generally scrape this information to deduce trends and ideas, but there’s no single cookie that gives them total access to “you.” If you gave that e-commerce site total access to your platform data though, they have everything they could ever want.
So how would this all get started? My bet is that if the Platform of You comes to fruition, it will be the project of a fairly sizable entity. After all, even with all the flattening of the world, the kind oomph to power through something this big doesn’t come from some no one emerging from somewhere.
Amazon could achieve this kind of initiative with their sizable share of the e-commerce market, but I’m inclined to believe they already have data on par with some of the larger social platforms. This represents a dramatic competitive edge so to start The Platform of You would only put the e-commerce behemoth at risk.
The initiative also won’t come from Apple because such openness would fall entirely outside of their brand norms.
But the Platform of You Could Come From…
Instead, if The extremely ambition Platform of You were to come to fruition, I’d put my bets on a platform competitor like BBC, who is getting ready to launch an iTunes competitor for television content. As a media company I doubt BBC has little data, but as a journalistic entity they could stand to gain a lot from 1. Informing people of how privacy should be online and 2. Getting voluntarily shared data from a collection of consumers in exchange for better recommendations, services, and more.
Another candidate to start The Platform of You could be, dare I say it, Wal-Mart. Why Wal-Mart? Because over the past couple years they have come to understand the value of people on the web. The superstore of superstores has acquired more than a few social companies in the past few years and it seems they are conjuring up the ultimate gift recommendation engine. More so than Amazon and others though, Wal-Mart’s engine seems to rely quite heavily on social indicators. And what could help a retailer get more data for their ultimate recognition engine without having to earn it with more than promises? The Platform of You of course.
Not only would The Platform of You provide more data for Wal-Mart, but they also stand to lose little when it comes to sharing what goes on across their platform. Wal-Mart’s game is price and wide availability and hardly anyone is going to be able to compete with them on that.
Yet another (perhaps less relevant reason)? Because quite plainly, the notoriously hated corporate super power could use the PR nudge. What better brand than Wal-Mart to become the superheroes of the everyday Internet user? The kings that give the consumers control over their data. Wal-Mart would become the purveyors of private Internet data like what Pinterest is to social networks. Everyday, finally understandable beyond the geeky coastal early adopters. Could it happen? Totally. Will it happen? Maybe, maybe not, but for now we will just have to join John Battelle in rooting for the tiny startups in this space who are blazing trails one person at a time.