Ethics of Data Mining

Assignment: Read this article about the ‘ethical’ social network Ello which promises not to data mine. What do you think could be the wider consequences to social networks of Ello’s stance? Do you think social media users will respond positively? How would you predict Ello’s future?


According to the assigned article, Ello offers an “‘ethical’ ad-free social experience.” While the platform may claim to be “ad-free,” that doesn’t necessarily mean the platform operates ethically or provides an “ethical experience.” Additionally, a platform that is not ad-free doesn’t necessarily provide an unethical experience. The terms are mutually exclusive, and simply because the platform does not allow advertising, does not mean it is superior or more ethical than other social platform. In fact, many platforms don’t necessarily foster unethical experiences, but rather the users act and generate content that is less than ethical.

With the frequent use of the terms “ethics” and “ethical” in this post, it’s important to keep in mind that what constitutes ethical behavior and how some may define ethics differs among individuals. Additionally, the term ad and/or advertisement may also seem like words with concrete definitions; however, the article claims that Ello, as a Public Benefit Corporation, “won’t make money from selling ads.” Does this mean pro-bono ads are fair game, what about ads promoting their cause and motives for what they deem to be an “ethical experience?” Would in-kind donations in exchange for ad space fall within or outside of this statement? You see, even when we think we are rather clear with our terminology and motives, there almost always remains some level of ambiguity.

As powerful as the manifesto for Ello is (as shown below), and I truly admire that they agree not to sell their users information to companies, it’s difficult to fathom that Ello will (1) gain enough traction by limiting those allowed to use it or (2) make enough money to continue to operate solely off the sale of widgets and plugins. Although individuals are less than thrilled about the idea that their information is being sold to marketers, for which there should likely be more strict regulations, our society has become accustomed to being marketed to.

Ello's Manifesto

Ello’s Manifesto

Whether it be television or a live sporting event, almost any form of entertainment provides opportunity for marketers. Why? Simply because it’s where the people, their audience, is located. While I personally don’t agree with data being sold, I do think it is fair game for platforms to utilize the information themselves, which may include strategically placing ads for companies for a particular demographic. That’s not to say I believe companies should be able to buy a list of individuals and their personal information to do whatever they please with, but rather they are paying for the ability to market to individuals that fit a certain demographic (without owning the information). We’ve allowed this practice for other platforms such as television advertisers that only want to market to people in a particular area watching certain types of shows.

I’m also in support of such information being used to improve service and/or be utilized for proactive reasons, including but not limited to safety. Essentially, I believe Ello limits itself substantially (and financially) by claiming they will not (EVER) participate in advertisements! Instead, I believe it could be more beneficial for Ello to promise not to sell personal information.

Without advertisers and with limited exposure, I predict a bleak future for Ello, and a slow death, similar to MySpace. (Which, by the way, does MySpace even exist anymore?) Oh, that’s right, we’ve forgotten about platforms that don’t have audience members, particularly when there are mammoth size companies to compete with and more than enough social networks to keep up with as is.

Need proof that Ello hasn’t gained traction, just look how unpopular the assigned article about the platform is:

Ello article - Social SHare

(Note: See social sharing stats/numbers above the article.)

While I don’t think Ello’s stance will force the hand of social media moguls such as Facebook to do away with advertising, I do think it may force social platforms to be more accountable for securing information and disclosing what they do with it. Initially, pending Ello even gets enough exposure, I believe some individuals will jump on the bandwagon and advocate for platforms of this nature; however, eventually they (the users) will want to participate on a platform that they can connect with others and to to do so will ultimately be forced to resort back to the platforms they once denounced.

Although I pride Ello for their efforts, I believe they could have utilized the multi-millions of dollars they have funded to raise greater awareness about how social media platforms are using our information to create an initiative for more strict regulations. Hell, a couple million dollars in promoted Tweets and Boosted Facebook posts could probably create quite a stir, in particular when using the platforms themselves for purposes of exposure (oh, the irony). Of course this would be going against their mission, but would it be worth while to prove just that point. How powerful would it be to state the advertising criteria you used on the ad itself and say that is why you are being targeted, because social platforms have allowed me access to your information for marketing purposes.

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2 thoughts on “Ethics of Data Mining

  1. Kaitlin. Your analysis is absolutely fantastic, outside the box and thorough. On top of this, it makes total sense! I really like how you touch on very important areas, like the ethical aspect of Ello’s philosophy and raising awareness about data mining. Regarding ethics, I agree with you when you say that the fact that they don’t sell data to advertisers doesn’t mean that the company is ethical or does the right thing. What if they play around this advertising concept and decide to accept exchanges or pro-bono advertising? I think this is an alternative that doesn’t fit inside their manifesto. It’s a way to have advertising without paying for it, but in order for advertisers to do so, they need data. They’re saying they won’t sell data, but can they lend it or give it in exchange of something else? In the eyes of audiences, this is the same thing. My issue is not only with making money out of selling data. It’s also with distributing our data carelessly. Do you agree?
    You also mention how in traditional advertising companies don’t have all the data available. They have general information, like demographics. Even though you bring the point about doing so in social media and the Internet, I think that the reason why there is so much information out there (that we voluntarily give) is so companies can use that information more effectively and in a cost-effective way to do business. I’m not saying it’s the right thing. What I mean is that if the Internet opened the door for this new type of advertising, up to what point is it ok for companies to share our data? Do you think there could be limits beyond demographics? Maybe there’s a way to standardize or regulate how much they can share?
    About the future of Ello, your idea about raising awareness about data mining on other platforms that do have enough users to make some noise is a great idea. Also, the “management by confusion” approach with advertising sounds crazy, but who knows if people respond positively. I really liked it and it would be a great way to throw their name out there. “Shop here” button with a text reading: Want to learn what other social networks profit from your data. Can you imagine? We haven’t heard much about them lately, other than learning that they just hired a CMO.

    • Thank you for sharing your thoughts Celeste. I had never heard of “management by confusion” – creative terminology, did you come up with that yourself? It would be very interesting to see people’s reactions and how they engage with content geared toward anti-advertising social media on platforms such as Facebook.

      I completely agree with your concerns about sharing data carelessly. While it doesn’t particularly bother me to have my data utilized for marketing purposes, or even sold in some cases (probably because I feel as if there’s nothing I can do about it), I do have an issue with a company twisting their words or simply acting contrary their claim. This brings us back to the issue of trust and social media.

      Ello prides itself in being a non-advertsing network, but you and me both have pointed out the possible loop holes around such a claim. (On a side note, thank you for bring up the gaming instances in your blog, they really shed some light onto what I was attempting to explain in my blog as well.) Ello makes such broad termed claims that seem to be capable of being manipulated and justified to the public. If Ello were to do this, my perception of the platform and their values, honesty and integrity would be at jeopardy. I would begin to see Ello as a shady company, that misleads the public and eventually would lose trust in not only their practices, but their mission as a whole. Ello set the bar rather high for themselves and I’m not sure they are prepared to hold up their end of the bargain.

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