Should data have a lifespan?

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Internet-accessible wearables like the new Apple Watch have yet to catch on with the general public, lacking a compelling killer app that can’t be replaced with a smart phone or something cheaper.

But if you ask Jacob Silverman, author of the new book Terms of Service: Social Media and the Price of Constant Connectionthe entities who will benefit most from wearables are insurance companies who love data that can perfectly quantify an individual’s lifestyle and habits.

“As one insurance consultant told Forbes, ‘the healthier you get the lower your premiums go.’ The corollary is that if you get sick or injured, or if you do anything that the insurer’s algorithms deem unhealthy, your premiums will increase.

What happens when you drive a little too fast on the way to the gym, and your health insurer rewards you but your car insurer slaps on a penalty? What happens when BlueCross knows what’s in your smart fridge? Your life becomes a series of overlapping—and often competing—rewards programs, gamified events, penalties, coupons, warnings, alerts, and nudges. Practically your entire existence becomes subject to dynamic surge pricing.”

These paragraphs, along with Silverman’s excellent recent pieces for Salon magazine (an interview about his new book and a long excerpt from it) have raised uneasy questions in my own life as a digital marketer and millennial-aged social media user. If you have an online record of yourself or two, there’s always this anxiety in the back of your head that you’ll be judged on your past actions, some so far away it’s almost as if a stranger did them instead of the person we call “you” in 2015. That dread will only be amplified as wearables, Uber location data, and other channels evolve to keep a permanent and increasingly accurate record of who you are and where you were. It’s a fear of letting the past define you in an inescapable, unforgettable way, of never letting go and never moving forward.

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As someone who took goofy mirror shots (a.k.a. proto-selfies) for MySpace during the Girl Jeans Era of scene kids and recently e-mailed Angelfire to take down a website I made when I was in middle school, there is literally nothing more terrifying to me than the idea that my old data is still out there just waiting for someone to stumble on via an errant Google search.

The benefits of omnichannel marketing cannot be overstated, butone thing that Big Data does not currently account for is the yet-unknown consequence of monitoring more and more intimate, idle moments of our lives. Is it possible that the data we collect as digital marketers could negatively affect our customers after a certain time?

There’s a permanence to digital information that removes the natural filters of time and distance from negative events: maybe you’d want to forget about the time that you threw up at Six Flags in front of your friends or had a rattail haircut for like six weeks – but the Internet remembers, and will probably hold it against you. We’ve heard of people losing their jobs over social media – and the fact that I just linked to a two-year old article that still contains the names, links to social media accounts, and personal photos of the offenders in question means that this stuff doesn’t just go away. It’ll always be there for an employer, significant other, or relative to see until the servers rust and the zombies come.

Point being: maybe there should be a lifespan for data – social or otherwise – that means that some information is allowed to be forgotten. The relative permanence of social media means that you’re preserving this disembodied avatar of yourself with a perfect (or perfectly sanitized) memory of all the lows and highs of your life, curated for an audience of friends, strangers, and advertisers to see. There’s always going to be a disconnect between the ego of your Facebook Profile and your flesh and blood, but is the solution (if there is one at all) really to collect more information to reconcile the two? Who knows. All that’s for sure is that we are more than our online identities, and great digital marketing has to evolve with who we are and what we want now rather than what we were in the past.

Just stuff to think about moving forward. Stay grounded.

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About Author

I'm a Dallas-based copywriter, blogger, and content marketer paying close attention to the human side of Big Data.

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