MSc Product Design - Independent Project #1

Beginning my final project, I decided to take a step back and review what I'd actually accomplished this year. In particular, I looked back at some of the other projects I'd undertaken that I'd maybe like to have revisited again and take another stab at with the additional time this project allowed. I'm largely aware that this is Honours Project Mk. 2 and I want my pièce de résistance of, not only my masters, but my uni career to be something exceptional. I was also really lucky and excited to have Martin Skelly as my advisor for this project.

These will probably be pretty wordy as I'm trying to cram as much into my weeks as I can - I've put a tl:dr at the bottom and attached all the links I've looked at this week.

After writing up about 11 different briefs and whittling it down to 5 (4 of which had been projects already undertaken this year) I finally settled on revisiting the privacy project - a total wildcard and it actually felt like coming full circle. Sort of finishing what you started. The issue we'd focused on originally was raising awareness of privacy and this was something I wanted to continue, albeit with my own spin on it.

Pretty quickly I found out that I was fascinated by the idea of online identity, and the value our personal data has for large corporations - especially Facebook and Amazon. In this day and age "our personal data is among today's most valuable information currency" and it's hard to determine what part of this is owned by companies, governments and obviously ourselves - provided it hasn't already been sold off by third parties.

Silicon Valley has already cornered the market on amassing personal information, and currently, Facebook's collection of data makes it one of influential organisations in the world. Very little is known however about what goes on "under the bonnet" of this machine despite the fact that users are feeding it the fuel it needs for free. As Vladan Joler, director the Share Foundation puts it:

"All of us, when we are uploading something, when we are tagging people, when we are commenting, we are basically working for Facebook,"

From this invaluable data that we provide to Facebook, they can then use complex algorithms to begin calculating and assigning characteristics to us. Ethnicity, sexual orientation, political affiliations and social classes - all of this can be gained through what we post directly to the platform and what we interact with. This information is then used by Facebook to push specific ads to us, based on our interests. We're sorted into various categories which advertisers can access to make sure their adverts are reaching their intended audiences. I found something fascinating here with this - how can our online activity and our online presence can be easily summarised into specific categories? Aren't we a lot more complex than that?

My "categories"

My "categories"

There's also a good article I read relating to how Facebook deals with ethnicity which can be read here. Basically, Facebook doesn't know if you're white or not.

This train of thought got me thinking about if there's any possible distinctions or similarities between our actual self and the online self perceived by the company's interpretations of you through the volunteered information. Are we the same online as we are in reality?

Fascinated by this, I touched on the work of Josh Cohen through an article called The Death of Privacy, who in his book The Private Life he sets the scene of a cultural currently in a "desperate psychological battle over the private self". Cohen talks about "life logging" which is the minute by minute transmission of data about one's life using any kind of social media platform or "quantified self technologies". Cohen mentions that life logging on digital platforms creates a memorable digital life, that contrasts our "irretrievable, transient life":

"Shadowing... is a permanent digital life... the digital recording becomes more 'real', more authoritative than your memory".

If this digital life is becoming more 'authorative', do our online selves actually then represent a more accurate and true version of us than what we present in reality? There's a couple of platforms I used to explore this - IBM Watson's Personality Insights and a website called

Both work in the same way - they analyse content posted on social media accounts and attempt to interpret the data to build a profile around you. The former was quite basic, relying on either a 100 word paragraph or linking up my Twitter account to provide them information while the latter was more advanced, sampling both Facebook likes and tweets to build a profile. The results of the two can be seen below:

IBM Watson's profile

IBM Watson's profile's profile's profile

Based on the results, for me felt a lot more accurate than the IBM profile, which suggests that my Facebook profile helps balance out certain big 5 qualities compared to the site sampling solely my tweets. This makes sense to me - on Facebook I would say I'm fairly conservative about what I post and like on Facebook where as I tend to use Twitter as a platform for sharing more abrupt thoughts. I'm definitely guilty as well of tweeting things I necessarily wouldn't say in public in an attempt to chase a few likes. 

Moving on from this week's desk research, I'm going to start looking ahead to identifying a key audience to focus on and tailor an experience for. As well as this, I'm going to start picking out more key insights and thinking about how I can use these to create product ideas centred around these insights - currently I'm excited about the idea of "information is currency" and "online identity vs offline identity".

Here's what I feel like after week 1 - only 9 more to go:

Tl:dr - personal information is one of the most valuable information currency in today's society, with many companies competing to gain the most data. Platforms such as Facebook and Google rely on us to volunteer the information to improve their services, but there's a huge grey area about what they are actually doing with your information. My project for this semester is focusing on raising awareness of this issue through the use of product design.

Things I've read this week:

Speculative Design -

The Death of Privacy -

How Facebook's tentacles reach further than you think -

Facebook doesn't know you're white -



Brain pickings articles -

Rise of the machines: who is the ‘internet of things’ good for? -

My own blog re: the privacy project at the start of the year - -

Personality Insights Demo -