Does the internet know you better than your mum?

Imagine if you had access to a record of everything you’ve done online in the last five years – down to keystroke level, even – and could analyse it to see what it reveals about you as a person.

Lots of us are wary of the prospect of companies like Google tracking our every move online; building up a thorough profile of our behaviours and preferences that can be sold to advertisers. But what if that growing profile could be used to try to help us become more self aware and to make better life decisions?

Potentially helpful recommendations based on our personal preferences and behaviours are now everywhere online (see Amazon, last.fm, Meetup, etc etc). But these services are all relatively closed, or only address a specific dimension of my ‘lifestream’; say, music. They aren’t able to help me interpret comprehensive data about my behaviours and preferences from the entire breadth of my internet use.

Hunch.com asks you an open-ended series of trivial questions about your personal preferences (try it – it’s addictive) then uses the impression it builds of you to provide advice to life questions  you have. But Hunch’s profile of me is limited to conclusions drawn from the self-conscious, considered answers I give to its formal set of questions – fun and extensive as those questions are.

Imagine instead if I were to let a service track everything I did online, tracking my unconscious behaviours as well as my conscious actions (let’s put aside the huge question of privacy and ownership for now). Then I could use that service to interpret the data it had collected to help me to make life decisions. Not just about how to spend my money, or what music to listen to, but what kinds of goals I might want to set for the coming year. What kind of career might suit me best; in what places and with whom I seem to have been happiest; whether I’m ready to have a baby. (Disclaimer – these are just random examples!)

This is just a big fuzzy concept that I’m trying to get my head around. Is my online footprint a reliable basis for making big life decisions? Almost certainly not. But it’d be an interesting way to get some potentially useful insights into myself as a person, my instincts and preferences, based on years of real data about my actions.

The push towards open linked data – making it easier to link, categorise and find online data – will bring these questions to the fore. On the one hand, there will be an explosion of innovation, crunching the new rich variety of data to provide useful insights about individuals, issues and organisations. On the other hand, of course, there will be plenty of tough questions around privacy.

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