The gift of data, and what it means for journalists


Our social lives are brimming with data. From tweets and Facebook likes, to Google search queries we may or may not want other people to know about. But who owns this data?

Google executives contend that big social data is “a gift” from social companies. For them, user-generated content is provided by Google and its peers, rather than by the individual user.

Recent research by Dr Phillip Kalantzis-Cope takes issue with this principle. Whose property is the gift? How does the aggregation of our social lives become the ‘gift’ of big data? And what does this line of investigation reveal about the social future of digital communication networks?

We spoke to Phillip to find out more about what it means for data from our social lives to be interpreted as a ‘gift’ by private enterprises, and the implications that this principle could have for journalists working with social data.

DDJ: Your research looks at the social aspects of big data. You examine comments from Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman of Google, and Jared Cohen, Founder and Director of Google, in which they say that big data is a ‘a gift’ from companies. Can you explain what they mean by this idea?

Phillip: The economic aspect of their notion of the “gift” centers on a view that our individual and social lives, captured as metadata via digital communications tools, should be viewed as a kind of non-commercial transaction, between us and them. Google offers us services for free, tailors a digital personalized experience, and we give them our data for free; this is the nature of the transaction. The normative axis of their understanding of this gift is that we are contributing to the accumulation of ever increasing datasets, a kind of co-produced digital public good; one that gives us a better understanding of who we are, individually and collectively.

In my article, Whose data? Problematizing the ‘gift’ of social labor, I look at the nature of this transaction. If vast amounts of real economic value are being extracted from the capturing and aggregation of our social activity, essentially free labor for these corporations, why should it be a gift? Why must we accept this basic assumption? What is our right to this information? Also, if the collection of individual and social activity metadata speaks to the creation of a co-produced digital public good, then what are the social implications for this public good to be owned by private corporations?

Can you attempt an answer to that question?

The “Platform Cooperativism” approach is a great place to start: “The platform co-op ecosystem is comprised of online platforms that support production and sociality, digital labor brokerages, web-based marketplaces that are collectively owned and democratically governed, and all those initiatives that directly support this economic model.” More information is available here.

Do you think that the Platform Cooperativism approach could have an application to journalism?

Yes, the Platform Cooperativism approach has an application for journalism! I think it must applicable for for all industries - we can’t cut off our imagination based on the legacy of our current condition.

The tools exist to create alternative kinds of platforms. Take a look here.

I’m sure there would be support within the journalist community for a model that can secure the co-ownership of content by content producers, support community/expert validation, and allows for collaborative approaches to the decision making around distribution in ways that can support the livelihood of the labor at the core of journalistic practices.

Has the model been created, maybe not? But it’s possible. A great opportunity maybe?

Given the volume of data accumulated and aggregated by Google, how does this concept of big data as a ‘gift’ impact the way that they make data available for public use?

On one hand, there is a motivation to keep metadata systems somewhat private; Google is only one, albeit important, player in a competitive information economy. On the other, there is a motivation to keep metadata systems open, to keep these spaces sticky in order to accumulate more metadata. But notice I say open and not public. To make metadata public would involve a completely different definition to the individual and social ownership of this metadata as an information good. Remember the capturing of this data does not happen in public but in spaces create by private information technology corporations.

How does the distinction between open and private metadata systems impact people, particularly journalists, who might have a public interest in a system’s data?

Private corporations, motivated by financial return for their shareholders, become the gatekeepers of human activity online. Mikkel Flyverbom has a really useful way of making sense of this problem by suggesting that the principle of “transparency” in the digital age, the regulation of access, operates at the level of the management of visibility. With this kind of managament model, there is a real danger  information that bubbles to the top in digital communication networks as if its popular - “click-bait” - can be distorted by proprietary social algorithms detached from social life itself. In this context, how do journalists then judge what is news?

For data journalists, big data offers opportunities to extract and tell previously hidden stories. How do you see this ‘gift’ approach as impacting the way that data journalists contribute to public debate?

Journalists might be able to scrape stories from the aggregation of these datasets. Nevertheless, the very possibility of access will be a private decision made by private corporations. Journalists need to question this barrier of access. Also, journalists need to critically approach one of the methodological assumptions based on this the collection of vast individual and social activity metadata; that in and of itself facts tied to big data will be able to get us closer to truth of social reality. This is what Chris Anderson proclaimed to be the “End of Theory”. Public debate on the opportunity of big data must be filtered through these two critical less.

How do you suggest that journalists go about questioning barriers of access?

Google, and others in the social network business, would argue that that can only give data that users make “public”. They become the protectors of our digital information rights. My suggestion: journalists need to question the barriers of access by questioning the kinds of content they are receiving.

How do privacy concerns fit within the ‘gift’ approach?

The gift thesis of Schmidt and Cohen reveals an erosion, or privatization, of the public sphere. Is privacy the real concern here? Or is it a distraction from the privatization, and financialization, of our individual and social activity?

Read Phillip Kalantzis-Cope’s full research article here.

Image: Ars Electronica.