Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Echoes of My Mind

Everybody's talking at me,
I don't hear a word they're saying,
Only the echoes of my mind.” (“Everybody’s TalkinHarry Nilsson)

If adware, malware, and spyware are bad, can myware (spyware you use to track your own path through the electronic universe) be good? An interesting piece on Business2blog discusses the potential value of conveniently tracking your own surfing history, listening habits, etc. electronically so you -- or your social network or other third party you authorize -- can exploit your trail in the future. B2B’s conclusion is worth quoting:

“We are going to be seeing a lot more companies that help you do creative things with your clickstream (the history of your online behavior). Some will give you complete control over how your data is used. Others will entice you with a cool service to capture that data so that they can then resell it.”

The ultimate currency in this e-trails economy is called by some “personomies,” defined as “digital manifestations of an individual. Personomies combine identity (who you are), activity (what you do) and sociality (who you know). They include emails, contacts, blog posts, comments, purchases, page views, forms filled, bookmarks, ads clicked, chats, feeds subscribed and more,” and some interesting aspects of personomies can be found on a blog of the same name (the blog is also the source of the definition quoted above).

Storing and sharing personal information necessarily invites addressing the issue of trustworthiness. The individual needs to trust that they control their personal information, and that they can rely on the assurances of privacy, etc. of any third parties the individual explicitly authorizes to access their history. Likewise third parties want authentic information – real users, real usage patterns.

Librarians traditionally have been very mindful of privacy and anonymity, and have sought to aggressively guard our users’ history of information seeking -- typically by routinely erasing transactions from our systems. History and present circumstances give ample credence to our fears of intrusive government interest in the reading habits of individual users. And there are more than a few cautionary tales from the Web (see for example a very interesting, even frightening item entitled “Data Mining 101: Finding Subversives with Amazon Wishlists,” describing the ease with which Amazon wish lists potentially could be exploited to discover individual reading interests).

Still, it may be argued that in pursuit of privacy libraries do their users some disservice – an individual’s information-seeking/reading habits could be leveraged to improve personalization, significantly enhance library-based recommendation systems, and help libraries optimize acquisition, collection development, and other aspects of library services in ways that gross circulation statistics, numbers of libraries that hold the item in WorldCat, etc. – useful as these may be -- cannot.

Are we striking the right balance of privacy vs. making data work harder? Are there options as yet not fully explored that would allow us to protect privacy but leverage user information more fully?


Edward Vielmetti said...

As a library patron, I certainly don't want my personal borrowing records shared without my explicit permission.

That said, there's a bunch of aggregate information that libraries routinely throw away that is incredibly valuable. e.g.

how many patrons borrowed this book this year? last year? the U of Huddersfield (UK) test catalog has a little bar graph showing that info.

How many other patrons have this item on hold, for popular items? The Ann Arbor District Library and many other catalogs expose that.

What books in this set of search results have been checked out the most? the NCSU Endeca catalog shows that.

I'm sure there's more. I miss the little paper slip on the front of the book with due dates stamped on it, you could tell at a glance whether the book was popular or not.

ddodd said...

"Everybody's Talkin'" was written by Fred Neil.

Eric said...

Edward -- great thoughts in your comment. Thanks
David -- thanks for the info. There's a nice write up on the song in Fred Neil's entry in the All Music Guide ( at the page for the song itself). The song was of course used in the film, Midnight Cowboy.

ddodd said...

And I think Nilsson's performance of the song is wonderful. Somehow Neil's is more believable, in his own voice, that is.