Data Point: Our data, ourselves

In a new column, Data Point, The Daily Dot's editor-hacker considers the meaning of the trails of data we leave behind online.

Nov 16, 2011, 11:00 am


Grant Robertson 

Grant Robertson

Aliaa Elmahdy started her own tiny revolution online recently, and she did it by owning her own naked truth.

We leave trails of information behind absolutely everywhere we go, and regardless of whether we’ve voluntarily joined the location-aware app revolution, something is out there, watching and learning about us.

Sometimes that’s a company, and sometimes it’s an oppressive regime. As with any new technology the potential exists to use these piles of data droppings you leave behind for good, or for evil.

Looking for the patterns in static
They start to make sense the longer I’m at it.

—Death Cab for Cutie, “Lightness”


Google scans our Gmail to find particular points of interest with which to serve us more relevant ads. Facebook multiplies its value to marketers by knowing exactly what we “like.” And, while both of those tactics might seem a little creepy on the surface, for the most part they are innocuous. At the least, they haven’t slowed either’s growth.

However, just last week, a federal judge ruled that data about messages passed in private on Twitter—through the Twitter version of email, dubbed direct messages—aren’t private at all.

What’s a social-Web loving nerd who longs for both privacy and connection to do?

Consider legendary Denver Broncos Quarterback John Elway. Elway, obviously a sought-after celebrity, once admitted that when he wants to hide in plain sight, he wears his own jersey: “I go to the mall that way. They know it’s not me because they say there’s no way Elway would be wearing his own jersey in the mall. So it actually is the safest thing to do.”

There is a lesson in John’s strategy. Information is only exciting if it’s a secret. When you take a secret public, you remove others’ power over that secret, and reclaim it for yourself.

So it was with Elmahdy, an Egyptian woman who took an incredible risk by exposing herself to the Internet, very literally. She broke long-standing social norms and Egyptian law by doing something completely unheard of in her country, posting naked pictures online. While in the Western world nudity has become almost completely passé, in Egypt, it’s still a crime.

As one Facebook user, Najat Kessler, wrote, “I so love YOU and RESPECT YOU Aliaa! I just dicovered [sic] your blog this morning and I am still speechless! Thank you so much for giving us a lesson in what having courage means!”

Perhaps we should all show the same courage in the face of our new data-driven world. Let it all hang out. The corporations may mine our personal tidbits for market share. We can exploit them in a way they never can: for beauty and personal growth.

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Last updated Mar 3, 2020, 10:35 am