The Data Transaction

Several times lately I’ve caught myself over-thinking just a bit while typing online. For example, just this week I typed in a tidbit of info, an answer to a question, as a reply on a friend’s status update in Facebook, only to delete it without clicking the Reply button. Once it was in response to a post about countertop materials. Another time it was a query about the best Mac money management software as a replacement for MS Money. Both times, I checked myself because I realized  that I didn’t want Facebook to have knowledge about my opinions or preferences! Now, those that know me would say that I’m normally very open and giving with information online. I love sharing my experiences. But lately I get the willies when I’m on the Facebook site and think of the enormous amounts of data they have about me.

You may scoff at such a realization – especially since I’ve been blogging for five years. But somehow my blog is different. I own the archives, I know how to take down posts, and though they are likely forever archived on the ‘net somewhere, I feel a little more control over their availability. With Facebook, I have no control over their storage or retrieval of my opinions.

Funny thing is, what I’ll often do if I still want to give my friends a bit of info or advice, I’ll hop over to… wait for it… GMail. Why do I trust Google with these tiny tidbits of information about myself and not Facebook? I’m not sure I know the answer yet, but I think about it more and more lately.

Affecting Online Help Statistics

Now, with my blog, I nearly always bring my thinking around to, how does this affect online help? I recently presented at the WebWorks RoundUp here in Austin, and was excited to hear about their new product, WebWorks Reverb. But one audience member asked a great question during my talk about web analytics. “How will data collection be affected if Congress passes a law that regulates how much information can be collected from a browser?” It’s a great question. In fact, just this week, browser maintainers Mozilla (Firefox) and Google (Chrome) have made privacy plugins available that give users the ability to select websites where they do not want to be tracked – using a header indicator, not by blocking cookies or scripts.

Here’s my take on where we stand today as we collect information about our online help and user assistance sites.

Thing is, you can already protect yourself online while browsing by installing plug-ins that refuse cookies, that limit tracing of personal information and identity, but they’re kind of a pain. And you have to understand the whole concept of what’s being collected and draw your own lines. Certainly, depending on the product you’re documenting, the percentage of people with high protection levels on their browser will be higher or lower. Government or regulated industries may already lock their employee’s browsers down tight, preventing data collection while they browse. In open source communities, I believe there’s a healthy disdain for data collection and a heightened awareness of what’s going on under the browser’s hood. It’s possible I’m only tracking 90% of my readers, or fewer. But I think that generally, readers of online help sites are willing to inform us of their searches, their time spent on site, if it helps us improve the content. Sarah Maddox’s post shows that Atlassian and its customers get great value from their online user documentation. As we implement more and more conversational content, it’s apparent that readers want to tell us what’s working well and what’s not. I’m heading to O’Reilly Strata next week to learn more about big data, telling data stories, and Twitter data analytics. I hope to learn more about data applications for technical communication.

What do you think? Are you more aware of the data you’re giving away about yourself? Are the trade-offs worth the data transaction?


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  • January 29, 2011 - 1:39 am | Permalink

    Hallo Anne

    This is a great topic. Similar thoughts have been flitting through my head as I drop comments on blogs, tweet, write my own blog posts, interact with friends on Facebook, answer questions on Quora, put photos on Flickr, post videos on YouTube and drop in on other social sites.

    I think it depends on what data we’re giving and what consequences we fear. A big problem might be identity theft, for example.

    Whenever I put a lot of thought into that possibility, the outcome is along the lines of, “Ah, but I’m just a small fish. Everyone else in the pond is doing it too. Nobody cares about what I’m doing and where I am, except the people I want to care.”

    What’s more, to steal an identity you need a passport number or other ID documents, credit cards, bank accounts, and so on. That’s not usually the sort of thing I put on a social site, nor is it the sort of information that you can collect from a browser.

    What about stalking? Well, again, I’m just a small fish and everyone else is doing it. Safety in numbers?

    I’m not saying it’s safe. Far from it. But basically, being active on blogs and other social media is fast becoming a necessity in our line of work. And it’s such fun and so rewarding.

    I think you hit the nail on the head when you wrote, “You have to understand the whole concept of what’s being collected and draw your own lines”. But it’s hard to wrap your head around what’s being collected, and things change faster than we can keep up with. So most of us just go with the flow.

    Turning it round and looking at it from the point of view of someone who may want to collect the information — wow, you’re right, it’s getting complex. I hadn’t considered the fact that you need to adjust your stats for those people who have “hidden” from the data collection tools.

    It sounds as if you’re in for a very interesting time at O’Reilly Strata. I’m looking forward to reading all about it.

    Thank you for linking to my post. 🙂


  • January 31, 2011 - 11:44 am | Permalink

    Hi Sarah – it sounds like you and I are very similar in our tolerance and risk calculations of openness and sharing. 🙂 It is a personal decision.

    My eyes were opened at SXSW Interactive last year by danah boyd’s talk, Making Sense of Privacy and Publicity, as to why these lines matter so much. I am so fortunate and privileged to not have to worry about a past messy divorce, ugly ex-husband or child custody concerns, health issues I wouldn’t want revealed, or a storied adventurous history with gangs or gender-bending or anything else someone would judge me for. My life can be an open book because of the privileges afforded to me by my “normalcy” (for lack of a better term). I’m grateful for this.

    I hope to learn much more this week so I can keep sharing – thanks for all you do to give us great information on your unique perspective.

  • February 14, 2011 - 3:23 pm | Permalink

    Anne and Sarah,
    I read the original post and your email exchange with great interest. How much we share our opinions is a personal decision for sure. Who “owns” our opinions once they are expressed in digital ink in the various social media forums you both cite is a tricky, multi-faceted challenge. And, it’s not one that has any easy answers (not saying we’re search for one).

    Keep the thread going after you return from O’Reilly Strata. Though I’ve never attended, I know from people who have that this meeting tends to take on big, tough issues.

    Thanks, Tim

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