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Big Data in creepy hook-up with big-game whales

Data-crunchers' dark side

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Open ... and Shut My son has a problem. One might even say an addiction. No, it's not to pornography, alcohol or drugs. It's to a massively multiplayer game, one that he can't seem to stop playing, in large part because the game's developer is crunching massive quantities of Big Data to learn exactly what will keep him on the hook.

Big Data, that promise of an online world tailored to our every whim, may instead tailor our purchasing habits to the whims of vendors.

This is particularly important to online gaming companies, which depend upon so-called "whales" for revenue. As one former Zynga employee revealed, 1 per cent of Zynga's players account for 25 to 50 per cent of its revenue. Get one of these whales on the hook and you can literally sell them a never-ending supply of virtual goods.

Small wonder, then, that mining Big Data has become such a big deal. But what happens when the "whale" is a 13-year-old boy? At what point should these social media companies take some responsibility?

It can't possibly help given that, as former Facebooker (now chief scientist at Hadoop start-up Cloudera) Jeff Hammerbacher suggests: "The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads." My son is a straight-A student, but I'm not sure I'd pit him against the über data scientists arrayed against him.

The crux of much of the Big Data movement, as Jerry Michalski highlights in Forbes, is this desire to turn users into customers into open wallets:

When companies say they are "customer-centric", we might be tempted to think that it means that they honor customers above everything. That the customer’s wish is their command.

Unfortunately, reality isn’t that idyllic, especially with today’s intense revenue pressures. All too often what customer-centric companies mean is that they have the customer centered neatly in the cross-hairs of an elaborate mechanism tuned to bop them in the brain with “messages” so they’ll part with more of their cash.

The difference between trapping unsuspecting users into parting with more of their cash and optimizing their experience for their good is a fine line, and one not always easy to walk. For example, Karmasphere, a Big Data analytics company, markets its Big Data offering for the social gaming market in this way: "Segment your users by gender, age, use patterns, spending patterns and stickiness to offer them features they’ll enjoy."

Social game developers such as Zynga use analytics to optimise the gaming experience such that a player will to spend another $5.00 to more quickly rebuild their battleship, add a tractor to their farm and so on. Or maybe the developer will spot a trend that suggests that gamers tend to leave if their farm (or whatever) is completely destroyed, so they learn to keep just enough intact to encourage the gamer to stick around. All innocuous, right?

Yes, and no.

In the case of my son, he told me that one of the reasons he couldn't stop playing his MMPG is because of the rush he felt when he'd log on and discover he had a new weapon, or that some other advancement had happened in the game. Scientists have a word for this "rush": it's called dopamine, and it's perhaps the primary motivation driving social media, generally. There's plenty of research on the phenomenon, including this study from Harvard.

Now marry that budding dopamine addiction to nonexistent parental controls on Facebook, the primary place where such games are played, and you have a perfect storm for a serious emptying of my son's wallet. Or, rather, mine. A month or two ago I noticed that my cell phone bills had become bigger than normal. When I looked into the details, I saw that my son's bill was much bigger than normal, and that it was because he was racking up Facebook credits. When I logged into his Facebook account (We have a policy that our kids can have online accounts but only if we also have their login credentials) I saw that he was using his mobile number to purchase Facebook credits.

Facebook didn't ask who was paying the bill behind that number, despite having my son's age registered on the site. Perhaps Facebook thought it was normal for a 13-year-old boy to be spending several hundred dollars on Facebook credits to play a game.

Don't get me wrong. I don't expect someone else to raise my kids. I also love Big Data and its possibilities, and work for a company that is deeply involved in the Big Data movement.

But as a parent, I can't help but be concerned about this dark side to Big Data. I'm not looking for legislation to fix the problem. As EMC's Chuck Hollis writes, nothing is going to stop the widespread use of Big Data because: "The prize is just too big to ignore."

In my case, my son's addiction to his favourite MMPG is the prize, but I wonder if a few simple parental controls could help. Facebook should have parental controls. Yes, my son can (and did) set up a separate account to continue to play, but Facebook should be able to let me lock down account creation and changes on my network, at least. And just as I use OpenDNS to filter the content I and others in my home can view on the web, I'd like to be able to filter out Facebook games on my network, but currently can't. I want that ability. Apple lets me shut off the browser on my son's iPhone and I can also selectively add/remove his apps. But I want him to be able to talk with friends on Facebook, so I've resisted shutting off Facebook.

No, I don't want to censor everything my son sees or does, but right now I'm trying to help him kick an addiction, and I feel like Facebook, the big games developers, and the entire social gaming industry is conspiring with Big Data to thwart me. I want my kids to grow up with their peers in the digital generation, owning their data rather than being owned by their data. I want them to learn how to manage this data-driven world, and not be subjected to a data-driven firehose every time they go online.

For now, I've given up my personal use of Facebook and Instagram in a show of solidarity with my son. I realise that my own example - eyes constantly glued to my iPhone - isn't helpful to him, so I'm trying to dampen my own dopamine-driven feedback loops. ®

Matt Asay is vice president of corporate strategy at 10gen, the MongoDB company. Previously he was SVP of business development at Nodeable, which was acquired in October 2012. He was formerly SVP of biz dev at HTML5 start-up Strobe (now part of Facebook) and chief operating officer of Ubuntu commercial operation Canonical. With more than a decade spent in open source, Asay served as Alfresco's general manager for the Americas and vice president of business development, and he helped put Novell on its open source track. Asay is an emeritus board member of the Open Source Initiative (OSI). His column, Open...and Shut, appears three times a week on The Register. You can follow him on Twitter @mjasay.

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