The Data Divide: Who Gets to Know About You?

According to recent research at the Social Media Lab in Toronto, Canada, Canadians are somewhat comfortable with academic researchers accessing their social media data. 56% of Canadians indicate that they are ok with their data being used for academic research purposes. In contrast, only 34% of Canadians feel comfortable with marketers accessing their social media data, but this discomfort is unfortunately at odds with the way social media companies make money, meaning every day Canadians are exposing themselves to the groups which they don’t really (when asked) want to access their data.

A subway platform with the words "mind the gap" written on the floor
“Mind The Gap” by Allen Brewer is licensed under CC by 2.0

In fact, it’s not simply that marketers can, and do, access social media data with reckless abandon. There is actually a very large, and growing data data divide that exists between those with the means to pay for access to social media data, and those who cannot. This second group includes academic researchers of course, but also could include small entrepreneurs, non-profit organizations, independent journalists, and start ups.

I reached out to several of the most popular social listening platforms. These tools are used by major companies, political lobbyists, and even law enforcement and government. I asked, as an academic researcher what their rates might be to conduct a search of historical social media data (this means collecting past social media posts, rather than beginning collection today and collecting for a set period of time going forward). Notably, the ability to collect historical data is important, because the only way to see trends over time is to collect for a long period of time (something that requires a special agreement with Facebook, Twitter and the other platforms). As a result, none of the lower priced or free tools allowed historical data collection.

The table below shows the cost of the different social listening tools. As you can see, this is out of range for most researchers, small businesses, non-profits, community groups, and start-ups, putting them at a data disadvantage. Furthermore, most of the tools available do not allow a monthly or one-time data collection option, meaning that even if you do not need to collect data for a year subscription, you’re still tied to the yearly cost.

Platform Cost
Talkwalker US $150K per year
DataSift US $60K per year
Crimson Hexagon US  $15K – $30K per year (with researcher discount)
Sysomos US $22K per year (or $4000 for a single report)
Visibrain EUR $24K per year

So who gets to know about you via your social media data? Those organizations that can afford to pay for the privilege. And these organizations are not aligned with the ones you may feel most comfortable having that information. This monetization of data access creates a data divide in research too. Some Universities can afford (and see the value in) paying for access for their researchers. Other small colleges may not be able to afford access. Similarly, some researchers are hand picked to work with companies like Facebook or Twitter directly, but most are kept out of the loop entirely.

With respect to transparency and accountability, it’s already a problem that those researchers who would like to access social media data, must do so, in most cases through a third party “black box application” where we do not know details about what is collected and how, and where people can not provide explicit consent. It’s also worth noting that while people may feel resigned to the knowledge that their data is being collected and sold by companies such as Facebook, Twitter and Google, most people are not aware that there are licensed third parties like the ones above collecting and selling their data with the blessing of the social media companies.

Entire industries know about you. Access to your social media data is sold to the highest bidder, and your only recourse is to log off – an action that as I discussed last week is neither easy to do nor evenly available.

The latest front on the digital divide, is a data divide, and we’re all made poorer for it.

The Data Divide: Who Gets to Know About You?

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