In any exchange for goods or services, one side acts as the vendor and one side acts as the consumer, between the two lies a currency as a medium of exchange. In contemporary life we’ve grown accustomed to cash as this currency, but a more intangible social currency* is rapidly growing in importance. Services and products are frequently offered money-free due to a social charge during use. As a basic example: facebook lets me do all my online chit chat, follow friends etc, and provides applications to do this for zero cash exchange (it’s ostensibly ‘free’). The deal is balanced by the use of another currency – social data, which facebook can turn into cash by trading with another partner – the advertisers. It’s a simple conceptual flip with which we’re becoming very comfortable, but here’s the big question:
If I pay cash for a service, should that service provider also be allowed to charge me through data mining?
This feels a bit like double charging. The two currencies start differently, but they both end up as cash. Currencies only work when a common understanding regarding value is achieved, which is why furs, grain, spices and copper have all had their place in our currency history. As a society we haven’t yet fully grasped the real value of our habitual data, so we’re happy to let it flow through our fingers. If we could visualise the value of social data perhaps this would change our stance. What does a social cheque look like? Can I get a social mortgage? Am I in social debit or credit? We played with this concept a little during the Emerge event in Arizona earlier this year (see below), but it could benefit from a bit more thought. Until someone tells us that the metal we’re holding isn’t iron but gold, we won’t really value it, and it will continue to be taken from us.
(*Pierre Bourdieus term “social currency” isn’t particularly nice, but it’s become the most widely understood concept, so I’ve used it here.)