With the rise of “Web 2.0” and the prevalence of various kinds of social media in today’s society, from Facebook and Twitter to Instagram or even LinkedIn, it is increasingly the case that every aspect of peoples’ lives can be found on the web somewhere. Slowly but surely, maintaining a strong sense of privacy is becoming less and less possible, in favor of sharing every event with all of one’s Instagram or Twitter followers, and of course several hundred Facebook friends. But what is most frightening to me is the information that these sites have about me, and have kept documented over the years, that I never even realized.
While I wasn’t entirely surprised with the information Facebook initially presented in my downloaded data, from past relationships to family relationships or even all of my uploaded photos, there were several things that took me by surprise. First of all, when looking at my “likes,” and groups, which were arranged in chronological order, I was immediately struck by how one could observe the passage of time and how I really grew up on the site. The likes started with things as basic as my hometown and various authors or actors that I remember loving in ninth grade. From there, the pages and groups provided a remarkably accurate depiction of my high school career, from Student Government to National Honor Society. They then slowly transitioned into various college pages and groups that signaled the end of my high school career like “Prom 2013” and “Senior Women 2013” before becoming overwhelmed with pages related to UW-Madison. While I was always aware of liking these pages at the time, it was shocking how much of the last four years of my life can be seen online and how accurately my online persona reflects my adolescent life. I think this has something to do with how Facebook is structured so that people only share as much as they want to -- they can be as involved or uninvolved as they want.
Google, on the other hand, does not have this conscious opt-in policy. As the dominant search engine today, and “google” becoming a well-used verb, I know very few people who choose to use another search engine. For this reason, I was expecting Google to know far more about my web activity and my online persona than Facebook ever would. However, Google’s information about me was far less accurate than Facebook’s data. They were able to accurately predict my gender and general age range, but in terms of interests, there were very few overlaps between their conclusions and the truth. Not only were their very broad conclusions only somewhat accurate, like “Arts & Entertainment” or “Music & Audio,” several of the interests they described were way off, like “Bollywood & South Asian Film” and “Vehicle Brands,” both of which I have little interest in. Although these conclusions may help target specific advertisements to me based solely on very general categories, they do little in terms of targeting specific interests of mine.
From this experience, it is clear that, although there is a heated debate about internet monitoring and how companies like Google or Facebook use data about specific audiences, it is the information that people volunteer freely that enables companies to more accurately come to conclusions about specific personalities. Although I use Google dozens of times every day, they were unable to come to any substantial or incredibly accurate conclusions about myself and my habits. However, it was Facebook, and the information I shared freely, that knew more about me. So although we may blame companies like Google for internet monitoring, we must take into account what information we willingly share with the world rather than blaming companies that support the platforms on which we choose to broadcast our lives.