Why stories matter

This is the second of three posts about your personal data, about why they tell a story, and why that matters.

When you sew together the many separate pieces of my personal data one can start to tell a story…

  • A story about my shopping habits (think Tesco clubcard)
  • A story about my finances (think Mint)
  • A story about my likes and dislikes (think Pandora)
  • A story about my relationships (think Facebook)
  • A story about my skills and career (think LinkedIn)

And indeed when you put my data together with a larger group, you get even more powerful, collective stories…

But the cautionary tale here – and which I’ve told above, and many times before – is of organisations trying to tell the story about you, but not with you. If it’s not you doing the writing (or it’s done without your permission) then the story won’t be a real one; it’ll always be at least in part a fictional one. In the same way a Hollywood movie is sometimes ‘based on a true story’, the organisation is likely to exaggerate some parts of the tale and completely miss out others so that the story has a particular ‘angle’. Bravehart, Titanic, 127 hours and The Queen all used poetic license to twist a true story into a beginning, middle and an end so that it could tug at the heart strings, ultimately to achieve blockbuster success.

This idea of ‘taking an angle’ is what I think Facebook, Google and others do when they target ads at you. They have pieced together their version of your story without your involvement, and in most cases their assumption is that you are always looking to buy stuff. To their mind it’s the only reason you’ll be on the internet. You’re not there to connect, share and learn, but instead to buy. (To be fair, these companies often have nobler goals like to connect everyone or to organise the world’s information, but to fund these bold endeavours they feel they have to flog stuff to us which is a shame.) Anyway, this assumption – their use of poetic license – is wrong. Sometimes of course, they’ll get the story right and you’ll be looking for something to buy, but we can see that it’s only once in a thousand (and once in two thousand for Facebook) that they’ll show you something you’re actually interested in, and that’s probably more luck than judgement.

Becoming the author, editor and publisher

Stories need to be crafted. This means someone needs to write the words, someone needs to edit them and someone needs to publish them. Most of the time we’re the writer, filling out form after form usually in order to benefit from a product or service. At other times we let others write about us, for example our credit reference agencies or hospitals. And sometimes we’re the editor, when we get to update our data through a self-service portal, or we’re able to mash up our own datasets for other purposes, like with mint.com. And finally social media tools have enabled us to become publishers in our own right.

It’s worth noting that once the data is written down or captured on someone else’s computer we lose control over what happens to it; just like the book that’s put on the bookstore’s shelves, we can’t control who buys and reads it, nor control if it’s copied or if the contents are mashed up with other material to make something new. Indeed I don’t believe that we should we have such control, something that certain element of copyright have been trying to do for a long time… in a previous post I’ve written about how it’s not really possible to have control over our personal data once it’s published; instead we need more transparency over where our data is held and a right to reply when we’re not happy with how it’s used.

Anyway, back to stories. Becoming the author, editor or publisher means that our personal data stories can be set in context, and have intent. In so many cases though it’s someone writing, editing and publishing our personal data and so our stories aren’t told in the right way. Some organisations even sell on our data so that even more organisations can write their version of the story, once again though without our editorial or publishing control.

It’s possible, just possible, that you know more about you than the organisations which want to sell things to you. Like where you actually live. Or what you like. Or when’s best to contact you, if at all. Or the actual reason you bought that album. It’s estimated that right now there are about 200 organisations that have their own ‘version of you’; government departments, online retailers, the driving licence authority, your current and past employers, your broadband provider, your grocery store’s loyalty team.

But what if you could write, edit and publish a single, true story about you, so that these 200 businesses could get what they need, each in context, and each with permission?

Wouldn’t that be a great idea?

The answer is yes. And it’s coming to a cinema near you soon…


  1. Pingback: Telling stories « Jamie Smith
  2. Pingback: A single version of you « Jamie Smith

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