Doing Humanity a “Solid” by Putting Individuals in Charge of Their Data

solid stack

WWW founder Tim Berners Lee is in the process of doing humanity another solid as he builds out plans to return control of our personal data to us, the netizens of the world.  If it takes off, the project has the potential to change the web as we know it – from the web economy to the user experience – as we know it. It’s interesting stuff, to say the very least, because it threatens the web’s power structure, at the top of which sit companies like Google and Facebook.

Right now, Google, Facebook, Amazon (and their ilk) have control over our personal data. Most of us stay logged into our Google and Facebook accounts, for example, giving both companies a clear view of our online behavior: the websites we visit, the searches we conduct, our relationships with people, the content we produce, the pages and ads we linger over (and the pages and ads we skip past) — you get the picture. These companies synthesize our info into hard data which they own and wield.

This hard data gives them massive power, enabling Google and Facebook to not only shape what we see when we’re online, but to influence (or more accurately, impact) how information is shared, how people buy things, and potentially, how we think and act.

Back to the “solid” I referenced at the outset. Berners Lee is the mastermind behind a project at MIT titled “Solid,” which loosely stands for “social linked data.”

In a nutshell, Solid aims to package your individual data and store it in a module, and – here’s the good part – enable third party applications to access your data at your discretion.

If Solid becomes standard, a few things are likely to happen (broadly speaking):

  • We can expect a sea change in digital economies, as empires built on personal data will face significant challenges to their current business models.
  • Our online experiences will become even more smart, relevant and useful, as individuals would be able to effectively “deploy” their data strategically.
  • We’ll see some really interesting and potentially valuable uses of structured Solid data.

While the idea of dismantling the nodes of digital power described above are appealing, the last point about uses of aggregated Solid data is also terribly interesting.

In a recent article published on Digital Trends, author David Weinberger envisioned applications of mashed-up, aggregated Solid data:

“For example, if you wanted to, you could give permission to a travel site or to a climate action group to access the information in your pods about your demographics and the trips you’ve taken. That group could mash that information up with data from other people’s pods to get an updated picture of where people are traveling and how that’s affecting local economies, carbon emissions, and perhaps national attitudes toward foreigners.

 Solid does all this without having to centralize information in hands that we may not—and often should not—fully trust.” 

For digital marketers, a data landscape underpinned by Solid (or IPFS or even blockchain) represents a game-changer. While I don’t see Google, Facebook, Amazon et al at risk of losing their power entirely, an environment in which individual users have control over their data means that marketers will, at some point, need to develop enough trust with their audiences to entice individuals to allow brands into the walled gardens of their personal data.

Obviously, Berners Lee and other parallel projects face immense obstacles – they will challenge entrenched and truly enormous business interests. However, that’s no guarantee of a sound future.  Don’t believe me?  Ask the folks at Yahoo, and for that matter, Google. Internet users are legion, and if we decide we really do care about how our data is gathered, owned, used and monetized, then we’ll see the balance of power start to shift.

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