Web observatories: they’re watching – but who benefits?

Could Big Data be used to manipulate online discussion and shape society? Perhaps…

Earlier in the week, at the Observing The Web event organised by the Web Science Trust brought us a rather fighting picture, as vividly painted by Neil Grindley of the JISC Digital Infrastructure Team.

Then up pops Tom Barnett from Switch Concepts Ltd. at a meeting yesterday to tell us that ‘Google has a file the size of an encyclopedia on everyone in this room.’
Hmmm … that’s not a particularly comfortable idea for someone to put in your head.

Um. no, it’s not…

But Neil has a ready reply to himself:

And then I think, c’mon Neil, pull yourself together! Google really doesn’t care who you are. They just want to put things in your line of sight that are more rather than less likely to get you to open your wallet and part with your wages!!

That’s true – it’s not so much the existence of the data that’s the problem – it’s how identifiable it is, and what it’ll be used for. What it’s being used for in one case is to better understand the web and how people use it. Grindley highlights the idea of Web Observatories, a system of monitoring activity on the web to gather enough data to create large-scale analysis. Yes, it’s our old friend big data.

The point of all of this ‘observing’ is not to try and take account of every little bit of data and content on the web, but rather to understand what the aggregated use of the Web can tell us; how trends and fashions and changes of behaviour in relation to the Web might illuminate aspects of our society and culture, both now and for future students and researchers.

That feels like more comfortable territory – academic researchers looking at big data sets for broad scale trends – surely I’m too small and insignificant to come to light in that sort of work? Well, maybe. There are those who have a vested interest in digging down from the trends to the key individuals involved. Many agencies play the game of “find the influencer”.

As Alan Patrick, who write for the excellent Broadstuff blog, points out this is still uncomfortable territory:

Who shall watch the watchers – a general issue around the binary nature of this emergent technology. On the one hand is it’s fascination and utility in so many spheres, and yet on the other its risks (privacy, snooping etc) was a theme throughout the day. There was a presentation by Edelman and the University of Southampton where they showed realtime network nail-ups for people re-tweeting on Twitter so you could see who were orginators, influencers, amplifiers etc. Another member of the audience asked the question that given one could do this sort of analysis, and given that sock-puppeting/astroturfing is rife, is this technology being used to to actively direct sock puppet activity. Now we’ve been pondering exactly this since last year, when we were asked if there were ways of looking at social media sites and see if “people” bad mouthing someone on these sites were sockpuppets or real, and thus were the sentiments genuine or contrived by competitors.

The more we know about the way that culture behaves on the internet, the more it can be manipulated. Why bother finding an influencer, when you can create an artificial one?

Here Be Dragons…

Image by Camilo Rueda López on Flickr and used under a Creative Commons licence.