Digital Data Mining 101: Echometrix Takes Kids’ Pulse

echometrix logoJuly 8, 2009 Still focused on “child predator” panic on the internet? I’d focus more on white collar stalkers like Echometrix, ubiquitous in far greater numbers, if I were you. Imagine digital tracking of every pop culture cue and kids’ conversation in “real time” mode, self-described in their Echometrix blog as “opinion mining and sentiment analysis,” to tap the “$190 billion teen market.” Wow.

This puts me in a head-spinning, ‘yougottabekiddingme’ mode, because it’s quite clear there’s about to be a long overdue huge industry smackdown with the FCC and the FTC reviewing tactics of marketers, and this EchoMetrix piece of the equation is a tangible piece of evidence if ever I saw one.

Talk about brazen maneuvers. Very strategic, as noted by their name change last month and FamilySafe search affiliation in a ‘fox guarding the hen house’ methodology that reveals itself quite transparently. Our own Shaping Youth correspondent Sara M. Grimes covered this Ypulse report on the analytics tool called, “The Pulse” to track tweens and teens from ages 7-21. 

teen-computer.jpgThe Canada.com news article opens,

“It’s a marketer’s dream and a teen’s worst nightmare. Pulse is a new software engine that crawls through blogs, forums and instant messages to eavesdrop on teen conversations online, providing marketers, movie studios and even politicians with detailed, instant insight into the buzz about their products and competitors.”

Continuing with examples like:

…”A Pulse query of 127 million documents found 22,730 teens discussing Michael Jackson last week, including 12,000 Twitter postings, 15,000 forum comments, 3,370 instant-message chats and 90 blogs…”

Sheesh. It seemed like circumspect calls for ‘self-rein’ were newsworthy, pragmatic, and making headway…I was just about to post an interview with Denise Tayloe and the executives of Privo from last month’s Ypulse session on kids online safety, and finish a follow up interview with Jeff Chester of the CDD to hear more about the outcome of last month’s FTC summit on kids privacy and data mining. Then whammo.

In ‘summer of link love’ content swap mode, here’s Sara with more…

Data Mining Kids and Teens’ UGC and Social Networks

sara-grimes-2by Shaping Youth Correspondent and author of Gamine Expedition, Sara M. Grimes

Via YPulse, and in follow up to an earlier news item the site broke last week, some coverage and discussion of Echometrix’s new service PULSE, a self-described “real-time web based sentiment analytics tool that specializes exclusively on teen data (ages 7 to 21).”

The service is already getting some buzz and news attention, and my immediate thoughts and concerns are no more positive now that I’ve read some of the initial reactions.

First off…”teen data”? Since when are 7-year-olds considered to be teenagers?

What they really mean is children and teens, so COPPA should be in full effect here, but anyway.

The confusion of kids and teens in Pulse’s own descriptions of the service obviously makes it all the more problematic, not to mention difficult to analyze.

Although it’s possible that they really do distinguish between teens and kids in terms of the data they actually collect in some cases, in others (such as UGC) they are quite explicit about including data from both kids and teens.

echometrix

Furthermore, according to their URL and their Tween Pulse Research Blog, the company is pretty aware that they’re not really limiting their research to teens…it probably just sounds more palatable that way.

The rest of the claims made in Pulse’s corporate materials are downright creepy, and basically boast about mining youth-produced UGC, blogs, forums websites and chatrooms, along with any IM that “teens” engage in through the company’s other product, “FamilySafe.”

According to Proudfoot, and as the product name would suggest, FamilySafe is an Internet security program that monitors and analyzes everything a child does online, and then alerts the child’s parent of “anything alarming” through text messages.

So far, FamilySafe monitors approximately 150,000 young people in the US and Canada, all under the rubric of providing parents with more “control” over their kids’ online activities.

Of course, it’s highly doubtful that parents who have signed on to the FamilySafe were considering the larger market value of the “non-alarming” information that is also collected from their children through this service, but then again I guess you can’t really be all that surprised when you discover that the market research firm you’ve paid to monitor your kids has a hidden agenda.

Sorry to all the parents who bought FamilySafe unaware of its market research implications, but in this day and age of widespread corporate surveillance, a little research into the company’s ownership and a thorough reading of the terms of service is pretty much mandatory when installing software that will track your/your kids’ every online move!

On the other hand, this is also a great (and possibly very devious) example of the corporate misuse (abuse?) of parents’ safety concerns as a Trojan horse for market research and/or marketing.

echomatrix screenshot

Anyway, here’s an excerpt of The Pulse product description:

“Every single minute PULSE is aggregating the web’s social media outlets such as chat and chat rooms, blogs, forums, instant messaging, and web sites to extract meaningful user generated content from your target audience, the teens!

PULSE contextualizes the aggregated content and provides instantaneous customized summaries in real time of the teen market. The PULSE identifies, evaluates, and graphically displays a wide spectrum of analytic information relating to the type, tone, grade, frequency of communications, impressions, needs, desires, hopes, dreams and wants of this teen audience who live on the Web.

[...] we focus on user generated content, which is the only data source solid enough to reveal the author’s true attitude and emotion. We provide you with access to 100% unbiased, unfiltered, and user group generated content from a vast network of teen focused content sources such as forums, blogs, chats and IM conversations.”

Well, as unbiased as any of us are when we post stuff online.

There is certainly an element of performativity within individuals’ online identity management practices that is being ignored here. But this very critique can also become a slippery slope into dismissing the importance of what Pulse and their contemporaries are doing. A good example of this is found in the article discussed in today’s YPulse post about, um, PULSE.

The article, written by Shannon Proudfoot for Canada.com, describes the invasive nature of the data mining service but quickly jumps to downplaying its importance by positioning the service within the context of that standard old argument of ‘how little it will ultimately matter because you can’t really find anything out that way, and people don’t post real info about themselves online, and aren’t marketers just so out of touch with the youth, etc., etc.’

Not that I recommend starting a moral panic around this or anything, but there’s got to be a better way of exploring these things without it coming off as either insanely and unrealistically pessimistic or as insanely and unrealistically optimistic.

Luckily Anastasia Goodstein of Ypulse is much more nuanced in her discussion of the article, outlining both the perceived weaknesses of the Pulse methodology, as well as highlighting the need for regulation “when it comes to mining data of internet users under the age of 18.”

In terms of the methodology, obviously the corporate description is overly celebratory and vague. Anastasia seems optimistic that the data collected won’t be all that useful, as do the teen and IT expert Proudfoot interviews in her article.

Granted, Proudfoot’s interview with Echometrix CEO Jeffrey Greene doesn’t reveal much to the contrary, as he glibly dismisses tried and tested qualitative research methods (which the market industry has really perfected over the past three decades) in favour of Pulse’s own quantitative approach:

“Services like Pulse are in huge demand because they provide nearly instant feedback in a swiftly changing media environment, Greene said, and fly-on-the-wall results are much more accurate than traditional market research.

“Teens are so clever that people who attempt to do research in the teen marketplace often tell us that teens ‘game the system,’ ” he said. “When teens participate in an online poll or a focus group, they know or think they know what answer we want to hear, so that’s the answer they provide.”

Echometrix said Pulse predicted Kris Allen’s surprise American Idol victory before the results were announced in May. Teens talk about iPods 13 times more than the Zune MP3 player, the program reveals, and the iPhone gets four times more buzz than the BlackBerry.”

But the thing is, the data they’re collecting includes a lot more than the mere number of times a particular brand name is mentioned, and we would be wise to remember that data mining technology is advancing at lightening speed before assuming that their methods are ineffective just because they’re not releasing any “rich” proprietary information to the press.

YPulse’s Anastasia describes PULSE’s methodology as lacking in comparison to focus groups and surveys because the data is likely to be decontextualized and misinterpreted…an opinion also expressed by Proudfoot’s teen insider.

pulse

But rather than think of PULSE’s market analysts as a bunch of out-of-touch suits, who “at 50-something have no idea how a teenager thinks, saying, ‘This is really interesting!”, we should instead suspect that some pretty on-the-ball, tech savvy, youth culture (and behavior) experts are much more likely to be the ones interpreting the data collected…

…And rather than looking solely at frequencies, I have no doubt in the world that they will also be tracking how teens talk and when, to whom and how their opinions change over time, and applying all sorts of rich qualitative methods in their analysis (discourse analysis, trend analysis, profiling, identifying archetypes, etc.).

That’s the ‘beauty’ of data mining…the info you can collect is vast and the connections you can make between units of data boggle the mind, and there’s always the potential for rich interpretation…even if that’s not what Echometrix is currently promoting (or revealing, or even doing).

Proudfoot also interviews an independent technology analyst, Jesse Hirsh, who expresses similar reservations about the efficacy of the system, stating: “Nobody ever posts an honest Facebook photo of themselves. They post the best Facebook photo of themselves, so they’re not really being honest, are they?”

But then again, doesn’t that picture actually tell us quite a lot about what that person wants, even if it’s not such an accurate picture of who they are? What they want to portray to others, how they would like to see themselves, what they think of as an ideal or appropriate or funny public display, etc.? And isn’t marketing all about identifying and exploiting our wants and ideals?

Overall, what this story tells me is that even if PULSE doesn’t succeed with their own attempt to data mine youth-produced UGC, the fact remains that the technology is out there and its ability to exploit kids’ online contributions, thoughts and communications is being overtly and unapologetically promoted as such to the public.

If there were any lingering doubts that kids’ UGC requires some regulatory protection to prevent its misuse and misappropriation by (adult-led) corporations, this newest case study should finally put them to rest.

It’s in the public domain, but are kids’ authorship rights really being fostered and adequately supported in this kind of environment?

Perhaps it’s time for a Creative Commons-produced terms of service, which teens and children can put on their websites, blogs and forums, explicitly and formally forbidding users of the site (human or automated, including Echometrix’s webcrawlers) from appropriating content published on the site for profit without explicit permission of the author…

I mean, isn’t that how the public domain is actually supposed to work anyway? On a more positive note, big props to Proudfoot for interviewing a teen as one of the experts on this clearly teen-relevant issue. Awesome!

Shaping Youth Correspondent Sara M. Grimes is a PhD candidate/professor at SFU, author of Gamine Expedition and accomplished researcher/scholar and founder of the ACT Games Lab, based in Vancouver, B.C., Canada. Her research explores the legal and ethical dimensions of children’s evolving relationship with new media technologies, the rationalization of children’s play within commercialized technological systems, and the political economy of digital games.

Watch for more from Sara soon as we amp up our ‘summer of link love’ and continue our healthGAMERS series next week, post part 3 of the virtual world/SmartyCard interview with THEIR executives, and cover more digital game coverage including a  ‘girls in tech’ focus.

Meanwhile, time to hear important updates on the privacy/kids online issues and more from the COPPA crew. Stay tuned…

p.s. A quick glance at the ‘who is Jeffrey Greene’ Echometrix CEO footnote gives me pause about my Citibank card. yowza. Cancellation forthcoming.

“Mr. Greene served as the Chairman of Citicorp Information Management Services, which was one of the largest resellers of marketing intelligence to the packaged goods industry.”

Comments

  1. This is some great reporting on a very important subject. I agree with and share your concerns about the problems and pitfalls of data mining with youth and teens. One would only hope that we could put some of this technology to work on positive programs that help and motivate youth.

    Hank Wasiak

  2. Thanks, Hank, Sara’s great, and always has balanced insights to factor in ‘both sides of the digital equation’ as a gaming guru, etc.—

    Personally, I’m ALSO a bit concerned that those marketers who have techno offerings that are trying to help clarify, be transparent, and add value in this arena (e.g. as we discussed at the ‘UnConference’ of Balancing ‘Safety & Fun’—subscriber models, opt-in vs. opt-out, etc.) are going to get sucked into a ‘guilt by association’ quicksand…Having their brands tarnished as ‘marketers’ in the same breath as these ‘data mining researchers’ when ethics like this come into play. (e.g. the ‘FamilySafe’ vaults turning into a data mining exploitation.)

    I hope for everyone’s sake we can all sort out who ‘the good guys are’ cause it’s confusing as all get out. As a parent AND from an analysis standpoint…

    I keep doing my ‘follow the money, sniff the trail, lift the veil’ of vested interests hither and yon, and continue to be surprised at the ties that bind. (again, another reason I haven’t figured out our ‘underwriter/CSR’ hit list!)

    More on this soon…A.

  3. @Safura: So refreshing to see teens asking about this! (I can’t tell you how many auto-link to some of the photos which saps the bandwidth here!)

    You should get an A+ from your teacher for even ASKING about DRM (digital rights management!)

    Anyway, I’m not expert, but I’m going to point you to those who are…because as a general rule if a piece is non-commercial (class assignment, education, etc.) it may fall under ‘fair use’ rights with attributions, which you can read about more in the links below at School Library Journal and American University Ctr. for Social Media…

    http://www.schoollibraryjournal.com/blog/1340000334/post/1420024142.html

    http://www.centerforsocialmedia.org/search/results/?cx=014956122163053463511%3Ajvchu7j59s0&cof=FORID%3A11&q=fair+use&sa=go&siteurl=www.centerforsocialmedia.org%2F#1041

    You can also always check if there’s a similar photo to whichever one you want at CreativeCommons.org or Flickr etc. & follow their photo-sharing terms…

    Either way, good luck with your project, I’m sure you’ll be fine…You’ve just given me a good idea for a blog post re: fair use rights/student education :-)

    http://creativecommons.org/
    .-= Amy Jussel´s last blog ..Spring Break 2010: Service Learning from Teens Turning Green =-.

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