February 3, 2009 / How content relevance and mass attention can change suddenly on the Internet, and the effect this has on privacy and control.

David Robinson, writing about the inadvertent popularity of some photos taken earlier, when their subject matter hit the news, talks about the unforeseen consequences of making the information public:

Anything we leave online could, for reasons we can’t guess at today, turn out to be important later. The inadvertent web—the set of seemingly trivial web content that exists today and will turn out to be important—may turn out to be a powerful force in favor of limiting what we put online.

This effect can be surprising: I wrote about the Fit’s fuel efficiency in January, 2008. Then, when oil prices spiked in April it immediately became the most popular page on the site. At that time in the U.S. a lot more people started asking Google about the new Honda’s mileage:

[Google Insights query]
Search volume for “honda fit mpg” from June, 2007 to June, 2008

Attention on the web is tidal. Mostly it ebbs and flows, but it can surge with little warning, and in unpredictable ways.

Providing more food for thought, Google recently released a paper warning about the potential for user data on unrelated social sites to be merged so that the sum of information about an individual escapes the privacy controls that person may have implemented on any one of them. The underlying question here is about how one’s identity and behaviour can be inferred.

Because of the numerous levels of mediation involved in transmitting data over the Internet, and the copying process that’s inherent to sharing digital content, publishing on the web effectively means ceding control. It also means affording others the chance to combine pockets of information about oneself into potentially unintended wholes.

Robinson asks whether the potential repercussions will, at some point, start making us think twice. It’s a good question. Hopefully we at least think once. On the other hand, when it comes to social practices (applying for a job, for example), the flood of personal information online might eventually create enough noise that the salience of “knowing” about a person online drops off.

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