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Coping With Big Data And Big Influence

Since the earliest times our social rhythm has been set by the natural world. The rise and fall of the sun and moon, the firmament full of stars and other natural phenomena dictated so much early human behavior. Today, companies and governments alike have molded patterns of mass behavior shaping the lives and choices of millions of people hearkening to our inherent vulnerability to being steered. Some of the “choices” we make as consumers or voters appear to be voluntary and pleasant. The reward of being the first in line for a new iPhone would fall into this category. Meanwhile, other choices may be involuntary – autonomic even – and often come with adverse economic and social impacts, at times bordering on irrationality. Our innate susceptibility to lemming-like mass behavior is not lost on organizations and people wishing to create predictable outcomes. Understanding these triggers will help people navigate the modern maze of mass influence.

Critically, recognizing that we are constantly being influenced is the first step toward understanding these patterns and taking control of the forces exerting pressure at every turn. In order to do this, we must appreciate the societal proclivity of “falling in line” and “conforming.” While societies have been falling into place for eons, the modern industrial applications of mass influence blossomed during the industrial revolution and went into overdrive in the digital age. The first industrial examples of mass order began on assembly lines, where legions of compliant workers donned the same outfit and performed menial, often dangerous repetitive tasks like so many automata. Even the academic model that dominates many schools hearkens to this era, where schooling systems adopted uniforms, alarms signaling class times, regimented lunch lines and other examples of mass (educational) production. Even the concept of going against the gods and changing time to suit farming and industrial production with Daylight Savings is an example of broad influence on a macro level.

Today, mass influence has taken on a whole new meaning with the advent of big data, data scientists and a battery of influencers pouring over our every choice with algorithmic precision. In this day and age, Black Friday, where many U.S. retailers are in the black financially due to holiday sales drives, can barely meet demand. We now have other special times driving mass behavior toward targeted channels or decisions. Small Business Saturday, a spending bonanza meant to support small businesses was started by American Express in 2010. Cyber Monday rounds off a weekend spending spree in the U.S. Creating its own Black Friday, Amazon’s Prime Day is an example of companies creating their own terms of trade with their otherwise pliant retail customers. By every measure, Prime Day has been a success for Amazon, but it pales in comparison to China’s Singles Day, which was started by Alibaba. During this one day event in 2017, for example, an astronomical $25.3 billion was sold in 24 hours – billions more than Cyber Monday, Prime Day or the U.S. holiday shopping weekend combined. These staggering figures have continued their inexorable growth, with each year marking a new consumption and mass influence record.

Insidiously, early data triggers are rigged throughout our entire consumption life cycle. In fact, retailers like Target can pinpoint pregnant consumers months ahead of their rivals based on what purchases are made. Indeed, Target, like other retailers, will leverage these early indicators to influence behavior and, ultimately, purchase decisions and frequency. Where retailers could once hope for the occasional sales drive to influence buying patterns, they can now count on droves of customer data – much of it the subject of a global cyber war raging in the background of the modern economy. The more firms prize customer information, the more privacy becomes collateral damage to the dueling forces of mass influence on the one hand and ill-gotten unique identifiers on the other. Along with the rise of big data and big influence, there has been a corresponding rise in businesses and consumers being held ransom to the risk of unwanted breaches and disclosure. Alarmingly, in some cases, there is no quid-pro-quo ransom demands, signaling a sport-like conduct emerging among hackers and so-called “hacktivists.” The Ashley Madison data breach would be an example of forced morality and disclosure.

We live in a time where social media users are trading off volumes of personal information turning Facebook into a global census bureau in exchange for social utility and connectedness. This tradeoff is not free and around every corner lies a new set of challenges and opportunities informing our “connected commons.” Apple’s hardline against the FBI following the San Bernardino terror attack, for example, raises the stakes in the debate of privacy versus security. The two are not necessarily opposite ends of a safety spectrum, they are items that must be locked in co-movement in a modern economy. The blurred line of where societal interest stops and corporate or individual interest begins is one of the defining challenges of our times. Recognizing patterns of mass influence has helped organizations shape outcomes and predictable behavior. This influence, however, also lies in the hands of the very masses organizations seek to target and the pendulum swings both ways.

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