Big Data, Privacy and Teen Behaviour

As librarians, we spend so much time talking talking about and thinking about all of the information available in the world, on the internet, and in our student’s/patron’s hands.  But how are we using all of this data?  And how is the information we’re creating being used?

I’ve been interested in Big Data since reading this article in the New York Times magazine about how Target uses a wide variety of information to track and change buyer’s habits.  Big data was also a major part of President Obama’s victory.  We have reached a time when a critical mass of government, private sector and user-generated data is on the web and available for almost any group to use for any purpose, positive or negative.  It’s striking and exhilerating and terrifying.  In Target’s case, data is culled from shopper’s own purchase histories.  The DNC and Obama campaign created a database from publicly available voter registration records, voter records and home addresses to inform, educate and (in some cases) shame likely voters to the polls.  There is just so much information available and so many different ways to use it. These datasets have been generated by our own actions and there is little we can do to stop them.  But what about the data we do control?

As of October 2012, Facebook has one billion active users.  Twitter has 500 million.  Every day these users generate millions of bits of data and most of its available for public consumption.  Recently, the web has lit up with a new form of data collection, the aggregation of public tweets and Facebook statuses about President Obama by racist teens. Inspired by  this article on, the Tumblrs Hello There Racists and Public Shaming are outing adults and teens for racist and inappropriate statements.  Many of these sites feature the teen’s full names, schools, places of works and extracurricular activities.  These aggregate sites have created profiles of young people at their worst and will live, potentially, forever.  Some have argued that creating these profiles will negatively affect these teens’ college and employment prospects.  I don’t know what the shelf life of a stupid statement on the internet is these days, but it’s clear that there is a disconnect between what Amber Case calls “our second self”, our expression of self that lives online.

This has gotten long and link-heavy, so I’ll keep thinking and writing about this later.  I just… I wonder how we prepare students for adulthood when the stakes of their onlines lived are so high.  I’m concerned about the ever-increasing desire to get younger and younger students onto social networks.  I’m worried about how parental involvement and wealth do or don’t help these kids.  If you have any ideas, I’d love to hear them.




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