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(c) 2010 Christiana Lambert (sketch journal)

There’s a thin line between observing someone’s behaviors and/or statements and making assumptions about the motivations behind those behaviors, especially if “we” decide that all people who do “x” are like “y” and, thus, we know all about them.

That’s why the practices discussed in a recent New York Times opinion column (“Facebook is Using You,” Lori Andrews, 5 February 2012) are frightening.

I think most of us who use Facebook already know the company is using us. That knowledge should be guiding what we say there. I understand that my listed interests will bring out targeted ads for those interests. However, I find it creepier when ads appear instantly that relate to what I have just posted. Talk about a new yoga mat? An ad for local yoga classes appears. Or what about when FB makes a “diagnosis” from my comments? I’ve never had gout, but I don’t think the gout study ads are going to stop anytime soon.

A recent incident showed me just how closely my Internet activities were being followed. My real-world writing friend, Doug Hawk, has a blog titled “It’s the End of the World . . . Or Not!” that takes a tongue-in-cheek view toward the hoopla surrounding doomsday culture, especially in light of the supposed ending of the world later this year. After I read several posts at Doug’s blog, FB kept showing me the new Chevrolet ads that say “Mayan 2012 Apocalypse” within them. Yikes.

What is more frightening than Andrew’s headline topic, however, is her discussion on the use of aggregated data—by companies and the government—to follow you and me. I don’t know about you, but I don’t like others to make an assumption about me based solely about what people who are similar to me might like. And I’m even more appalled that such people might assume I have a certain need based upon my searches on the web.

First of all, I’m a writer and have had to do research about many things that have nothing to do with me, personally. But second of all, if the research did have something to do with me, what business is it of someone else’s? I finally checked out what gout is to see just why FB thinks I should have it—I still don’t think I have it, but do more entities now believe I have gout? Did this potential gout keep the life insurance company from offering me anything but standard rates, despite my incredible age-related blood test results?

Beware, also, the dangers of lumping people into a group based on one factor. Despite having very good credit scores, Sherman and I had to explain to Wells Fargo’s mortgage division why we had the temerity to apply for a Kohl’s credit card. Because we buy a lot of our clothes there and Kohl’s offers good discounts to cardholders? Since the credit limits on these cards are relatively low compared to any other credit we have, I can only guess that some people are prone to default on those Kohl’s accounts. If that is so, it might explain why I’m usually the person buying the fewest items at Kohl’s, but it doesn’t make me personally likely to default.

Reminds me of when I applied for and got a position within corporate America. Later I discovered that the boss liked to watch applicants come in from the parking lot so he could see what they drove and use that information to help him decide if they would be good fits for the organization. When he explained that to me, I got pretty wound-up. It didn’t matter to him that my car had been totaled, through no fault of my own, and I had to borrow a car just to get there! He didn’t really care when I told him his assumptions of me were based on false premises.

See, assumptions can provide insights, but I don’t want someone making decisions about me based upon one or two details.

Take an assessment such as the Strong Interest Inventory® that “measures career and leisure interests.” Many colleges offer this tool as one of many to help students with their vocational pursuits. I used this tool over 15 years ago and thought it was one of the more useful assessments. I liked how my answers were compared with those of people across professions and within genders. The two professions that stood out as not mine? Chef and nurse! I agreed that I didn’t think a lot like people who were chefs or nurses. And you might be able to figure that out just talking to me.

But what about the areas where I was off the grid—might you assume I thought just like the people on the grid do? For the most part, my thinking was more in line with the guys. And I flat out thought some questions still showed a little bias. Do you like singing hymns? Then you must want to work in a church versus just being a Christian who likes to sing.

Still, those answers were for my eyes, not for a prospective employer’s viewing. I could take from the assessment what helped me and leave the rest.

Not so true with the wholesale aggregation of web habits—for sale to anyone who will pay? Yes, what we announce on Facebook is information we shared freely, but what I do in my own home on my own computer should not be available to the highest bidder absent of a compelling reason to be following me nor should I be compared to a large group of people who may or may not share anything in common with me other than having done a similar web search.

Sorry, but you can put me in the demographic box of people who do not pose a risk to animals, other humans, or national security—unless my desire for a little privacy gets in the way of how you want to operate your business. Just because you grant yourself access in your Privacy Statement doesn’t make it ethical—or necessary.

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